Acquire the license to the best health content in the world
Contact Us

Nightmare About Iraq Triggers Amnesia

Case spotlights memory loss caused by stress

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 18, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- In an unusual case of a nightmare triggering amnesia, a healthy 61-year-old Ohio man temporarily lost his short-term memory after dreaming his son was killed while on duty in Iraq.

The experience of the man, whose son wasn't in the military, shows how stress can contribute to amnesia even when the stress isn't real, says Dr. Mark A. Marinella, an internist in Dayton, Ohio, who reports on the case in the Feb. 19 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Potentially, current events could play a role, too, in severe stress," he says. "I wonder if any of this happened after 9/11. It makes you wonder, because thousands of people were affected."

The case developed when the man's wife brought him to an emergency room after she noticed that he forgot what happened the previous evening and couldn't form new memories about the day's events. He quickly forgot things that happened just moments earlier.

At the hospital, he repeatedly asked if he'd had a stroke and couldn't remember seeing the doctor or nurse. But the man still knew his name and who he was.

From a medical perspective, he had both anterograde and retrograde amnesia, meaning he couldn't remember recent events or form memories of new events, says Marinella, who works at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton.

Amnesia is much rarer than Hollywood might make you think, but people can indeed lose their memory, and there's no effective treatment other than waiting for the amnesia to pass, Marinella says. Medical problems like concussions and brain tumors are sometimes to blame; people have also lost their memory after coughing fits, exercise, or sexual intercourse.

Stress also appears to be a cause: "The cases I've been seing have been associated with divorce or building a house; I've seen a case of someone whose divorced son moved back in with them," Marinella says.

In the case of the 61-year-old man, the apparent cause soon became quite obvious. Once his memory returned, he recalled a dream in which his son joined the Marines, was killed in Iraq, and came home in a flag-draped casket. In reality, his son was only considering a career in the military.

The man screamed when the dream ended and immediately developed amnesia. Once he recovered, however, his memory returned and he didn't appear to suffer any aftereffects. (His son, meanwhile, stayed at home.)

What caused the man to lose some -- but not all -- of his memory? No one seems to know for sure what causes amnesia.

"Some people think it might be altered blood flow to a part of the brain called the temporal lobe, which is where memories are formed," Marinella says. "I don't think anyone knows 100 percent for sure why."

Alan Searleman, a professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University, says stress can cause different types of amnesia, including a strange phenomenon known as the "fugue state."

"They literally lose all identity of who they are," he says. "They can move away and start up with a new Social Security number. They're generally completely oblivious to their previous life. It's usually tied to having seen or experienced a horrific event, like seeing your family die or being raped. The thought is you can't take it, so you shut that part of your personality down."

Essentially, amnesia in these cases may be an "ego defense mechanism" triggered by major threats to the self, Searleman says.

Luckily, he says, amnesia sufferers usually don't lose their memory again.

Marinella advises family and friends to act quickly if a loved one appears to be suffering from memory problems. He also suggests that doctors consider stress (and even dreams) as possible causes for amnesia.

More information

The Nemours Foundation explains what can go wrong with your memory. This page from the University of Washington looks at amnesia in the movies.

SOURCES: Mark A. Marinella, M.D., internist, Miami Valley Hospital, and clinical associate professor, Wright State University School of Medicine, Dayton, Ohio; Alan Searleman, Ph.D., professor of psychology, St. Lawrence University, Canton, N.Y.; Feb. 19, 2004, New England Journal of Medicine
Consumer News