Head trauma is major cause of amnesia

Posted6/2/2014 12:02 PM
  • Authorities say that wearing a helmet while bike riding helps a rider to avoid a head injury in an accident.

      Authorities say that wearing a helmet while bike riding helps a rider to avoid a head injury in an accident. Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer, 2013

You wanted to know

"Why does amnesia make you forget memories?" asked fifth-graders in Elise Diaz and Caroline Dicentio's classrooms at Prairie Trail School in Wadsworth.

The medical term for memory loss is "amnesia."

"Different things can cause it," said Cathy Cartwright, a pediatric clinical nurse specialist, neurosurgery, Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas. She also is past president of the Chicago-based American Association of Neuroscience Nurses.

Head trauma is a major cause of amnesia.

"If you're playing football or soccer and you 'get your bell rung,' you can have memory loss. That's serious," Cartwright said.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control reported 2.5 million emergency room visits from traumatic brain injury, the kind that comes from blows to the head such as sports concussions. Severe cases resulted in 50,000 deaths.

Cartwright warned that you should immediately let your parents know if you injure your head and can't remember what happened right before or after the injury. That means your brain has been damaged in some way.

"Avoid head injuries by wearing helmets if you are skateboarding or bike riding, and wear seat belts when riding in a vehicle," Cartwright said.

Why does your brain lose memory?

"If it's an injury such as a concussion, brain cells can be torn and chemicals leak out of the cells. The electrical activity in the brain is jumbled up. This injury often doesn't show up on a CAT scan or MRI, even though concussions can be a serious brain injury," Cartwright explained.

There are two types of amnesia, she said.

"Retrograde is when you can't remember past events or what happened before an injury. For example, if a quarterback gets sacked during a play, he has amnesia if he can't remember the play, what team he's facing or which side of the field he's playing on."

Anterograde is when you can't remember any new information. You can't transfer new information into long-term storage, Cartwright explained. "It's like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it."

Memory loss can be temporary or permanent, depending on the cause and extent of damage. Certain sedatives or hypnotic drugs can cause temporary amnesia. Not enough blood circulating through the brain can also cause memory loss, which can be the result of a stroke.

"Tumors, disease or surgery to remove part of the brain can also cause amnesia," she added.

Cartwright discussed another reason for memory loss: psychological trauma. The memory of a terrible car accident may be so upsetting the brain forces you to forget the incident.

Cartwright has worked as a pediatric clinical nurse specialist in neurosurgery for the past 18 years.

"I enjoy taking care of children and their families, being able to help them, give them information, nurture them, it's gratifying," she said.

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