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Emily Welker, Published September 25 2013

Amnesia cases like Strand's are rare

FARGO – The kind of amnesia Rob Strand’s family is describing is rare, said a Sanford Health neuropsychologist, and finding out whether his memory is likely to come back depends a lot on discovering its cause.

Dr. Lindsay Hines is not treating Strand, who was set to be seen for the first time on Wednesday at Sanford neurology.

Amnesia can be caused by a disease, such as Alzheimer’s; by an injury, like in a car accident; or by a stroke, she said.

The center of the brain that stores memory is called the hippocampus, and it’s located deep in the temporal lobe, where it’s somewhat protected. When the hippocampus is damaged, those stored memories won’t come back, Hines said.

Amnesia can also have a psychological cause, such as when someone has survived a war, a rape, or another traumatic event like a car accident. The brain will shut down access to those and other memories in an effort to protect itself so the patient can continue functioning in daily life.

Doctors used to think it was better to unlock those memories, but now, the thinking has changed.

“Many psychotherapists would say, ‘If the brain’s protecting itself, keep it there,’ ” Hines said.

Sometimes people fake amnesia, she said, but they don’t typically do it unless they stand to gain something from it. The benefits of malingering can be as simple as the extra love, attention and support victims of illness receive, and that behavior can be tough to separate out from a psychological or emotional problem, she said.

The type of amnesia Strand’s family describes is called retrograde amnesia. There is another kind called proactive amnesia that Hines has treated. “That’s the person stuck in the same day, every day,” she said.

That amnesia is the kind that prevents the brain from making new memories. One patient Hines saw described waking up and being shocked at his appearance in the mirror 10 years after the onset of the amnesia.

If retrograde amnesia is caused by a head injury, there can be improvements up to two years after the injury, Hines said. “But a lot of time there’s psychological injury, which can make the symptoms worse.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541