FEB 01, 2017 3:06 PM PST

Diagnosed: Cases of Rare Amnesia Stump Doctors

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

A rare cluster of 14 cases of severe amnesia in Massachusetts has doctors and CDC officials worried and on the hunt for a culprit, which remains unknown.

The mystery began in 2015 when a Boston neurologist, Dr. Jed Barash reported a string of four cases of amnesia with striking similarities. The four cases span over three years. However, all four showed an unusual mark on their MRI scans: their hippocampi seemed to have lost blood flow. The ischemia, as diagnosed by doctors, did not seem to stem from trauma or to be stroke-related.

The hippocampus is a brain region essential for memory. Small and unassuming, the hippocampus plays a big role in transferring short- to long-term memory. In Alzheimer's and dementia patients who suffer from memory loss and disorientation, the hippocampus is usually one of the first regions to show damages. Patients who suffer trauma to the hippocampus have also reported experiences of anterograde amnesia - the inability to form new memories.

Upon further investigation, doctors noted another similarity. All four patients either tested positive for opioids or had a history of substance abuse.

Without knowing the scope of things, Barash contacted Dr. Alfred DeMaria Jr, the state epidemiologist for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. "We couldn't really address what was causing this," said Dr. Alfred DeMaria.

To investigate whether these cases were isolated or if something more insidious was happening, the Department of Health issued a statewide alert. Doctors soon reported another 10 cases with similar characteristics: young patients between 19 and 52 years old, prior drug use, “striking anterograde amnesia,” and the telltale MRI mark on the hippocampi.

Because none of the cases were ongoing, researchers have to play detective based on medical history. "All we had was the medical records," DeMaria said. "We couldn't go back (in time)." Of note, 12 patients had opioid abuse, while others had used marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines.

The cases point to drug abuse as a likely smoking gun for the amnesia. However, researchers are cautious to make such a connection until they identify more cases and establish a strong pattern.

Indeed, DeMaria said this cluster of amnesia cases may "[represent] an emerging syndrome related to substance use or other causes. Maybe nobody was looking for this," DeMaria said. "Maybe this isn't new. Maybe it was happening all along."

Additional sources: Live Science, CNN

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
AUG 23, 2019
Immunology
AUG 23, 2019
Making Opioids Safer
The opioid crisis results in 130 American deaths every day, and both prescribed and synthetic opioids are at the core of the epidemic.  Any other drug...
SEP 22, 2019
Technology
SEP 22, 2019
Blood Incubation Using Laser Technology
The world’s first ever blood incubator was developed using laser technology and could someday prevent fatal blood transfusions in critically ill pati...
NOV 25, 2019
Clinical & Molecular DX
NOV 25, 2019
eRapid: molecular diagnostic power in the palm of your hand
We've heard lofty biotech promises in the news of being able to diagnose diseases from a single drop of blood. Yet, diagnostic procedures for the maj...
DEC 04, 2019
Clinical & Molecular DX
DEC 04, 2019
Genetic platform takes the guesswork out of catching infections
A physician is faced with 3 patients: an elderly person with a chronic cough, a child being wheeled out of surgery and a young mother with a high fever. Ho...
DEC 18, 2019
Clinical & Molecular DX
DEC 18, 2019
Germs don't stand a chance with new AI-powered diagnostic platform
We are steadily losing our edge in the war against infectious bacteria. A huge surge in antibiotic resistance is threatening healthcare and agricultural in...
DEC 23, 2019
Clinical & Molecular DX
DEC 23, 2019
Long awaited at-home test gives hemophiliacs peace of mind
Haemophilia is a genetically-inherited condition that severely affects an individual’s ability to stop bleeding. Blood clotting is a natural protecti...
Loading Comments...