What Is Amnesia?

Amnesia, also known as an amnestic syndrome, occurs when a person experiences the full or partial loss of memory. Amnesia may be permanent or temporary, and it is more severe than common forgetfulness associated with aging and everyday stress. In fact, amnesia is the significant inability to remember important information to such a degree that it has a moderate to severe effect on a person's life.

Learn more about the medical condition with this review of signs, symptoms, causes, and treatment. If you suspect that you or a loved one has amnesia, seek medical attention right away.

Often people with memory loss or head injuries may be too confused to realize they need help. Seek immediate medical help, even if they don't understand the gravity of the situation.

Woman holding her head
Tetra Images / Getty Images

Amnesia Types and Symptoms 

All amnesia cases involve memory issues, but what is forgotten is what characterizes the type someone has:

  • Anterograde amnesia involves problems with short-term memory (struggling to remember new information and experiences).
  • Retrograde amnesia involves problems remembering events and information that one experienced or knew in the past.

Some people have transient global amnesia, or the temporary inability to remember experiences or information.

Most often, amnesia is partial, meaning only certain memories are affected. While full amnesia—a total loss of memory and awareness of personal identity—can also happen, it is rare.

Typically, people with amnesia still know who they are but struggle to remember new information and retain new memories.

People with amnesia are often aware that they have a memory disorder. Unlike patients with dementia, those with amnesia usually have the same personality and cognitive abilities that they had previously.

They simply struggle with the aforementioned memory issues.

It's also possible for some people with amnesia to have false memories, out-of-sequence memories, or be confused at times.


There are several possible causes of amnesia, including:

  • Brain injury that affects parts of the brain related to memory processing
  • Seizures
  • Tumors
  • Certain medications
  • Degenerative brain diseases
  • Inflammation of the brain
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Substance abuse, such as alcoholism
  • Trauma, such as being subjected to a violent crime

People who have suffered severe traumatic experiences may experience full or partial amnesia surrounding those events.


Treatment varies depending on the cause and severity of amnesia. Usually, patients with amnesia receive psychological help and tools to help them recover their memories. Assisted technological devices can help people with amnesia stay organized and keep track of their affairs.

Unfortunately, amnesia can cause major problems in the personal and professional lives of patients. If amnesia is severe enough, some patients may need to be moved to an assisted living facility.

Minimize your risk of developing amnesia by avoiding heavy drinking, protecting your head while riding a bike, and seeking prompt medical care for infections to prevent them from spreading to the brain.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Amnesia. Outlook and Prognosis.

  2. Mayo Clinic. Amnesia.

  3. Spiegel D, Smith J, Wade R, Cherukuru N, et al. Transient global amnesia: current perspectivesNeuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2017;13:2691-2703doi:10.2147/NDT.S130710

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Amnesia. Symptoms and Causes.

  5. Allen RJ. Classic and recent advances in understanding amnesiaF1000Res. 2018;7:331. Published 2018 Mar 16. doi:10.12688/f1000research.13737.1