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Understanding Common Memory Disorders

Thursday 11 March 2021
Memory loss

Table of Contents

I. Where Does Memory Live?

II. Types of Memory Disorders

a. Alzheimer’s Disease

b. Autoimmune Encephalopathy

c. Frontotemporal Dementia

d. Dementia with Lewy Bodies

e. Cognitive Impairment

III. Diagnosis and Treatment

Where Does Memory Live?

All of us have memories that we cherish and some we wish to forget. But where in the brain do our memories live? There are actually three parts involved in memory, including the hippocampus, neocortex, and amygdala. The hippocampus is located in the temporal lobe and is responsible for episodic memory formation where it stores these memories away for later access.

The neocortex is the biggest part of the cerebral cortex and involves higher sensory perception functions, motor commands, spatial reasoning, and language. Over time, memories may move from the hippocampus to the neocortex, where they are filed away as general knowledge. An example of this is knowing that coffee contains caffeine and gives you a pick-me-up. Lastly, the amygdala attaches emotional significance to your memories. It also plays a role in forming new memories that are related to fear and trauma. [1]

Memories are essential to a person's identity, and it can be quite distressing when a person can no longer access their own life's history. Memory disorders like Alzheimer's, dementia, and cognitive impairment can significantly impact a person's life. Namenda (memantine) and Aricept (donepezil) are medications commonly prescribed for the most common memory disorders. Learn more below.

a man looking at papers pinned to a wall

Types of Memory Disorders

You may be experiencing a memory disorder if you notice changes in your cognition, ability to reason, remember, make decisions, or communicate. A wide range of factors can cause these disorders, but in Alzheimer's, age is usually one of the main factors. Some disorders can appear suddenly, while others occur slowly over time. 

a. Alzheimer’s Disease

In the United States, it is the seventh leading cause of death and affects 5.3 million Americans. Older adults are more likely to develop this disease, but it can happen to younger adults as young as 40.

Alzheimer's occurs when there is damage to the nerves within the brain. These nerves may form clumps or tangles, which makes the nerves lose connections to other nerves. You are more at risk of Alzheimer's if it runs in your family, or if you have a history of diabetes, hypertension, traumatic brain injury, or poor nutrition.

Short-term memory deficits can interfere with everyday activities, and Alzheimer’s patients may require more assistance as the disease progresses. In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, patients become fully reliant on others for adequate hygiene and proper nutrition. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s can include:

  • Problems with judgment
  • Restlessness
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Lack of emotion
  • Inability to follow directions
  • Personality and behavior changes [2]

b. Autoimmune Encephalopathy

Encephalitis is characterized by inflammation and swelling in the brain, leading to neurological function changes and mental confusion. Most people develop this condition due to the contraction of viruses. If you are vaccinated for common viruses like chickenpox, rubella, mumps, and measles, encephalitis is much less likely. Other forms of neurological conditions can also increase your risk of encephalopathy. If this swelling is not treated properly, you may lose memories and experience the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Loss of ability to perform motor movements
  • Problems with speech
  • Slowed movements or problems walking

a woman covering her face with her hands

c. Frontotemporal Dementia

Dementia is often misunderstood because it describes a group of memory disorders. Dementia is not a condition on its own, but doctors use it to describe symptoms of memory problems. Frontotemporal dementia occurs when nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes are lost. The lobes shrink, and a person's behavior, personality, language, and movement are affected. The two main types of this condition include:

  • Frontal variant: This type affects behavior and personality.
  • Primary progressive aphasia: This type affects a person’s ability to communicate and understand language. 

Damage to the frontal lobe may also cause this condition and cause dramatic personality changes. Other symptoms can include:

  • Making socially inappropriate comments
  • Aggressive behaviors or actions
  • Significant changes in eating patterns
  • A decline in personal hygiene habits [3]

d. Dementia with Lewy Bodies

This progressive form of dementia involves a buildup of abnormal protein particles in the brain tissue. These particles are known as Lewy bodies. Lewy bodies are often found in the brains of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients. Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) can lead to a progressive decline in memory, thinking, and problem-solving. Memory problems often occur later in the disease. Other symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Sleep disorders
  • Dizziness
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Changes in attention and alertness

e. Cognitive Impairment

Cognitive impairment may occur if you are at risk of Alzheimer's disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, or hypothyroidism. Those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) may have language, thinking, memory, and judgment problems.

Vascular cognitive impairment is another common form of dementia when there is decreased blood flow to the brain's tissue. Major surgery, heart bypass surgery, abdominal surgery, or a stroke may cause vascular dementia. This condition's symptoms are often much different from Alzheimer's and can appear suddenly or gradually over time. Symptoms include: 

  • Mood changes
  • Urinary problems
  • Sudden weakness and trouble with speech
  • Tremors
  • Balance issues
  • Memory problems [3]

a polaroid that says “memories”

Diagnosis and Treatment 

As you can see, memory disorders can vary greatly. This can make it difficult to know when to seek help, but it is important to talk to your doctor if you or close friends or family notice significant changes in your behavior. Your doctor may ask you several questions to determine the cause of your symptoms, like how much alcohol you consume and if you have been feeling depressed. Your doctor may order blood tests and brain-imaging tests to see if brain abnormalities are present. [4] 

Once diagnosed, you may be prescribed medications like Namenda (memantine) and Aricept (donepezil). These drugs are used primarily in the treatment of Alzheimer's and general dementia symptoms. Medications cannot cure these chronic memory disorders but can decrease symptoms and put off nerve degeneration in the brain. If you have Alzheimer's, it can help people maintain certain daily functions for a little longer. Researchers believe that drugs like Namenda help regulate glutamate levels in the brain. Too much glutamate causes cell death, so Namenda keeps glutamate production under control. Talk to your doctor if you believe that you are experiencing a memory disorder. [5]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.