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Conspirators in their own memory loss – findings from 53 patients with “psychogenic amnesia”

21 September 2017

A person diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia complains of serious memory problems, sometimes even forgetting who they are, without there being any apparent physical reason for their symptoms – in other words, their condition seems to be purely psychological.

It’s a fascinating, controversial diagnosis with roots dating back to Freud’s, Breuer’s and Charcot’s ideas about hysteria and how emotional problems sometimes manifest in dramatic physical ways.

Today, some experts doubt that psychogenic amnesia is a real phenomenon, reasoning that there is either an undetected physical cause or the patient is fabricating their memory symptoms.

In a new paper in Brain, a team of British neuropsychologists has reported their findings from a study of 53 patients diagnosed with psychogenic amnesia – one of the largest ever studies of its kind. Michael Kopelman at Kings College, London, and his colleagues conclude that the prognosis (that is, the scope and speed of recovery) for psychogenic amnesia is better than previously realised and that there appear to be four main categories of the condition.

The patients with psychogenic amnesia were all patients at St Thomas’s Hospital in London between 1990 and 2008, and the researchers compared their memory functioning and clinical history with 21 patients with memory disorders with a known physical cause (such as early stage Alzheimer’s or hypoxia), and 14 healthy volunteers.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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