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Diagnosis: Telltale Forgetting

Faulty memory is a hallmark of schizophrenia.

Memory is more than an isolated piece of information, such as where you parked your car. It's a web of subtle associations: To find that car again, you also must remember that it's a gray, 1995 Volvo.

For people with schizophrenia, who struggle to bind reality together into a coherent whole, the links in that web collapse, leaving in its place a grab bag of unconnected snippets. Memory breakdown, researchers now find, is not a minor symptom of schizophrenia but one of its core deficits.

The weakened ability to remember shatters a schizophrenic's already fragmented self-identity, suggests a recent study. Healthy people use past events to describe themselves, but schizophrenics can't lean on their erratic memories and rely instead on vague descriptors like "I am a father."

Even the hallmark symptoms of schizophrenia—hallucinations and delusions—are intrinsically linked to memory and recall. Anyone can sometimes think, "I'm so stupid," but schizophrenic people will not remember that they alone have created that thought. It's possible that the voices they hear are a misremembering of words they themselves generated as coming from someone else, says Saruchi Chhabra, a psychologist at the University of Western Australia. —Mary Diduch

Therapy to Remember

Even after schizophrenic symptoms are under control, cognitive deficits may linger, continuing to interfere with functioning. Cognitive remediation therapy treats problems with attention, memory, and organization, giving schizophrenic patients tools that improve daily life.

Strategize Schizophrenics don't naturally use tactics like mnemonic devices, says Alice Medalia, a psychiatrist at New York's Columbia University Medical Center. But patients can be taught to rely on shortcuts to bolster recall.

Motivate Real-world activities—say, paying attention to an engaging radio story—help motivate patients to stay tuned in so they can learn.

Concentrate Therapists help patients focus on events and information with concentration drills, like listening to the news in a group and repeating what they heard.