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How is a brain attack connected to memory?

Brain attack or stroke (mythical names lakva, parsva vayu) is a sudden loss of brain function due to abnormalities in brain blood circulation. It is similar to a heart attack where the blood supply to the heart is abruptly cut-off, leading to chest pain.

Though the symptoms of brain attack vary depending on which part of the brain is damaged the common ones are weakness in arms or legs /leg weakness, speaking difficulty, face drooping, life’s worst ever headache, walking imbalance and visual problems. These symptoms tend to set in suddenly and can be easily remembered by the acronym FAST: Face asymmetry, Arm weakness, Speech slurred, Time is brain. Early attention can effectively treat a brain attack. Once stroke symptoms are identified the patient should be promptly moved to the nearest ‘stroke-ready hospital’.

Memory, a unique and complex brain function, can be related to a brain attack in four ways.

  1. Acute brain attack, which impairs memory abruptly due to damage to a part of the brain related to the memory function called hippocampus. The symptoms might vary from the classical presentation of strokes stated above and may include an inability to recollect the address of one’s home or to carry out routine tasks like cooking, driving and so on. The patient might lose his way and wander around for hours trying to find his home even in familiar surroundings. At times the memory loss may affect only abilities like verbal (naming persons) and visual (cannot identify faces or objects by sight but able to do so by hearing, touching etc). These episodes, at times misunderstood as confusion, may last only a few hours and are, therefore, called ‘transient global amnesia.’ Occasionally, however, patients may never fully recover from the amnesia caused by an acute brain attack. The affliction of another part of the brain called thalamus’ also leads to a temporary memory loss.
  2. Slow and gradual deterioration of memory due to multiple mini-strokes or little brain attacks. Each time, a mini brain attack occurs a small part of the brain is damaged. As the damage progresses, the patient may suffer from gradual memory loss. If correctly identified and treated the progress of this condition can be slowed or halted.
  3. This is caused by the same risk factors which trigger brain attacks. The risk factors for s, Alzheimer’s disease, apart from genetics, are high-uncontrolled blood pressure at midlife, improper dietary habits, sedentary life style, uncontrolled high blood sugar and cholesterol. These risk factors also cause brain attacks in vulnerable persons. Addressing these issues at an early stage can help prevent a brain attack and dementia.
  4. Memory problems can also occur because inherent memory disturbances in an individual compounded by a small brain attack.

Can memory loss be regained? Is it treatable?

Memory loss in ‘transient global amnesia’ usually lasts from a few minutes to some hours. Such patients tend to regain full memory once the episode passes. However, they need to be seen by stroke specialists and investigated to prevent recurrent brain attacks.

Memory can also improve spontaneously, either completely or incompletely over a period of time. This is due to the remarkable plasticity of the brain. In addition, few drugs are available for early stage memory disturbances, which also delay the development of full-fledged dementia. Treatment of other brain attack related problems like anxiety, depression and sleeping problems can also patients regain lost memory. Personal training and use of computer programs and applications may help improve memory and attention.

Modern devices like smart phones, earphones, beepers, alarms and personal GPS tracking devices greatly aid patients in performing their day-to-day tasks. Even conventional practices like making short notes and sticking them at easily visible places help patients become far more independent. Patients with moderate to severe memory impairment must avoid driving for obvious reasons.

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