In case you needed another reason to fear the dentist, here you go. A British man went in for a routine dental procedure and came out with the ability to remember only 90 minutes of new information. Since 2005, he’s been reliving the same morning, where he has to go to the dentist every day.
I suppose there are worse things, but at this moment, I can’t think of any. The weirdest part of this story is that the man doesn’t appear to have any brain damage that would cause this sort of memory loss, so his doctors are stumped as to how the dental procedure could’ve caused it.
The former patient, who goes by William for the sake of anonymity, can remember everything up until 1:40 p.m. on March 14, 2005 — right before he went under anesthesia for a root canal procedure. But while his long-term memory is intact, he can’t retain any new information beyond 90 minutes. It actually makes Drew Barrymore’s condition in 50 First Dates look pretty good, because at least she got an entire day of new memories rather than just an hour and a half.
The condition is called anterograde amnesia, which usually occurs when damage is done to the bilateral hippocampal or diencephalon regions in the brain. However, William’s doctor, Gerald Burgess from the University of Leicester, is stumped over his condition, because it appears to have happened without any noticeable trauma to the brain. As such, Dr. Burgess has published a study on the case along with four other similarly mysterious cases of anterograde amnesia.
This type of amnesia can also sometimes occur because of emotional or psychological trauma, but Dr. Burgess says there’s no evidence of that either.
“He wakes up believing he should still be in the military, stationed abroad. Every day he thinks it is the day of the dental appointment. Each morning he is prompted by his wife to check his computer, on which the family has listed, and keep updated, key facts he should be aware of,” Dr. Burgess told Daily Mail. Despite the obvious disadvantages, William carries on well enough with the help of his family and friends.
And while the overall effects of this “organic amnesia” are negative, Dr. Burgess says William can still learn a new skill and retain it, because that type of memory sits in a different part of the brain. So if he wishes to take up the saxophone, he could learn to play it with aplomb, but he might not remember when or how he got so good at it.
There was a time when the doctors thought the amnesia might have been caused by trauma William may have been experiencing in relation to his grandfather dying. However, Dr. Burgess does not see the correlation. “Though WO was close to his grandfather, it was difficult to consider this event having caused WO sufficient distress to manifest in so profound an illness,” said Dr. Burgess.
Sans trauma, the doctors were only left with the cause being a breakdown of protein synthesis in the brain. Memories are kept by a process of consolidation by the production of mRNA proteins in the brain. If that process is blocked for some reason, new memories are unable to be retained.
While William’s case is exceptionally rare, it still makes me a little apprehensive about going in for my routine cleaning next week. I would hate to leave with only 90 minutes of short-term memory, or worse, 10 seconds. The only plus side is that your memory wouldn’t be long enough for you to get sad about it.