Dissociative Amnesia

Definition

Dissociative amnesia is one of several dissociative disorders that mentally separate a person from some aspect of their self, following some sort of trauma or severe stress. In the case of dissociative amnesia, affected individuals are separated from their memories, suffering abnormal memory loss in ways that significantly affect their lives. They may forget a specific event, or they may forget who they are and everything about themselves and their personal history. The person may or may not be aware of their memory loss though they may appear confused. Unlike those who develop medical amnesia after an injury or stroke, however, someone with dissociative amnesia rarely shows concern about their condition.

Symptoms

Dissociative amnesia is not normal forgetting, like misplacing keys or forgetting the name of someone you only met once or twice. Symptoms range from forgetting personal information, like one’s own name and address, to blocking out specific traumatic events or even the events of one’s entire life. A person with dissociative amnesia may not remember friends, family members, or coworkers. When a person with generalized dissociative amnesia forgets everything about their self and their life, they may move away to a new location and establish a new identity but, when discovered, they don’t know how they got there or why they have no identification. Most cases of dissociative amnesia are temporary, but memory gaps can last anywhere from a few minutes to an entire lifetime. Those with dissociative amnesia may be at higher-than-average risk of suicide.

Causes

Past or recent trauma, abuse, accidents, or extreme stress, such as from a war or natural disaster, either witnessed or experienced, can cause dissociative amnesia. There may also be a genetic link, because individuals with dissociative disorders sometimes have family members with the same or similar condition. Although the symptoms may be similar, dissociative amnesia is not the same as amnesia resulting from brain disease or damage. However, researchers have identified abnormal changes in brainwave activity in people with dissociative amnesia that could lead to better understanding of traumatic memory loss and more effective disorder-specific treatments.

Treatments

While there are no evidence-based treatments specifically for dissociative amnesia, techniques such as hypnosis and drug-assisted question-and-answer sessions may help some people retrieve their memories. People with dissociative amnesia may gradually or suddenly recall their missing memories. Once memories are recalled, psychotherapy—specifically, cognitive-behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy—can help the person understand how trauma caused their amnesia, how it disrupted their life, and how to resolve their issues to help prevent further trauma in the future. Psychopharmaceuticals, such as antidepressant medication, might also be recommended.

References

Spiegel D. Dissociative Amnesia. Merck Manual website. Last reviewed/revised July 2015. Accessed March 13, 2017.

Mental Health America website. Dissociation and Dissociative Disorders.

Staniloiu A, Markowitsch HJ. Dissociative amnesia. The Lancet Psychiatry. August 2014;1(3):226-241.

Kikuchi H, Fujii T, Abe N. et al. Memory repression: Brain mechanisms underlying dissociative amnesia. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. March 2010;22(3):602-613.

Radulovic J. Using new approaches in neurobiology to rethink stress-induced amnesia. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports. March 2017;4(1):49-58

Last reviewed 06/08/2017