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How does epilepsy affect memory?

Published 8 Feb 2021 • By Courtney Johnson

Epilepsy is a chronic medical condition characterized by recurrent seizures. These seizures come from a malfunction of the brain in which the neurons that are supposed to work together through electrical signals stop communicating correctly. Many patients experience memory problems due to their epileptic seizures.

How can epilepsy affect memory? What causes memory issues? How can you cope with them?

In honour of International Epilepsy Day on February 8th, we wanted to raise awareness for this issue in our article!


How does epilepsy affect memory?

How and why does epilepsy affect memory?

Many people with epilepsy report having problems with their memory. In fact, it is one of the most common issues for which epilepsy patients seek help. 

Memory issues can be caused by any of the following:

Seizures

Any type of epileptic seizure can have an impact on memory, either before, during or after. Our brain is constantly monitoring itself to encode, store and retrieve information which we interpret as memories. During a seizure, sudden bursts of electrical activity interrupt this internal monitoring, which can keep memories from being formed, stored or retrieved.

Some epilepsy patients have generalised seizures that impact the entire brain, while others have focal (partial) seizures that impact only a part of the brain. Some patients may even have both. Seizures can affect memory during any of these phases:

  • Before a seizure - memories created before a seizure can be lost as the encoding and storing processes are disturbed.
  • During a seizure - loss of consciousness during a seizure prevents memories from being recorded and stored.
  • After a seizure - confusion after a seizure (called post-ictal confusion) is common and can cause difficulty in remembering information. It usually subsides as the patient recovers.

Anti-epileptic medicines

Certain medicines used to treat epilepsy (sometimes called anti-epileptic drugs or AEDs) can cause side effects that affect memory as they slow down the excessive electrical activity in the brain. They can cause concentration issues or drowsiness that can affect short-term memory and make it hard to learn and remember new information.

Inversely, AEDs help to reduce the number of seizures, so for some patients they can actually help improve memory.

Temporal lobe damage

The brain has two hemispheres, or halves, made up of four lobes: the occipital, parietal, temporal and frontal. Research into brain activity has determined that much of our memory processes occur in the temporal lobe, so seizures in this part of the brain can cause memory issues:

  • Damage to the right temporal lobe: This part of the brain is essential for visual memory, such as remembering faces or navigating around a particular physical setting. 
  • Damage to the left temporal lobe: This lobe is important to verbal memory, such as learning names and facts, so patients who have seizures in this part of the brain may have trouble remembering words and may have problems speaking.

Surgery

If AEDs are not helping to control epilepsy seizures or if scans show that the seizures are isolated to one small area of the brain, surgery is a possible treatment option. Some patients report experiencing memory problems post-surgery, particularly after surgery on the temporal lobe. Though surgery may help to ease or stop seizures from occurring, it may also cause temporary or permanent memory problems.

Emotional health and well-being

Epilepsy can take a toll on patients’ everyday lives, adding stress or anxiety or causing sleep problems. Stress and lack of sleep are known to have a significant impact on concentration and memory, as our brain processes information while we sleep and has a harder time creating and storing memories while under stress

How to cope with memory issues caused by epilepsy?

While memory problems caused by epilepsy can be frustrating, there are a few techniques that can help you cope with it:

  • Focus on what is most important - No one, whether they have epilepsy or not, can remember everything. When you have something you need to remember, try to focus on the most important aspects and ignore the rest.
  • Repetition - Repeating what you need to remember out loud forces you to process the information in two different ways (through listening and speaking). By thinking about, speaking, and hearing the information you create more connections in your brain and are more likely to remember.
  • Make lists - This one may seem obvious, but by writing down minor things or tasks you need to complete, you clear out space in your brain to focus on remembering more important information instead of tomorrow’s grocery list or. 
  • Be kind to yourself - We all have memory slips at some point or another, so try to not dwell on them when they happen. Remember that no one is perfect and try to learn from your lapse. 
  • Work your brain - We’ve all heard the adage “your mind is like a muscle”, right? Well there’s some truth to it; an active brain helps to keep memory strong! Try to find a subject or hobby that interests you and exercises your brain. Learn a new language, take up a musical instrument, read a challenging book, take up jigsaw or crossword puzzles, the choice is limitless!

Though memory issues caused by epilepsy can be frustrating or difficult to accept, understanding how and why it occurs and adding some memory-strengthening techniques to your tool belt can hopefully help you to manage it better!


Was this article helpful to you?
Share your thoughts and questions with the community in the comments below!
Take care!


avatar Courtney Johnson

Author: Courtney Johnson, Health Writer

Courtney is a content creator at Carenity and focuses on writing health articles. She is particularly passionate about exploring the topics of nutrition, well-being, and psychology.

Courtney holds a double... >> Learn more

3 comments


Mrs E Larkin
on 08/02/2021

I found this article emotional, as it stirred up my recall of 54 years with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. The seizures leaving one confused and finding a loss of recall.

Thank God I was fortunate enough to have successful surgery 8 years ago but it has left it's mark. Each year I have worked hard to regain the gift of memory, from recalling as much as possible of my beautiful family to learning about relationships, even with my husband of 42 years!


Courtney_J • Community manager
on 09/02/2021

@Mrs E Larkin Hello Mrs E Larkin, thank you for your comment. I'm glad to hear that your surgery was successful and that you've been making progress with your memory! 

We've created a discussion thread in our epilepsy group to continue the discussion, so feel free to take a look and share your experience there as well : Have you ever experienced memory problems because of your epilepsy?

Take care,
Courtney


lesmal • Ambassador
on 14/02/2021

Thank you for an interesting and informative article.

I've had epilepsy for 47 years now but been on a variety of medications throughout the years. All anti-epileptic medications cause memory loss and depending on dosages and the amount of seizures one has, affects each of us differently and naturally affects memory too. 

If I'd been lucky enough to undergo proper testing when resident in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, and been given the option of possible surgery, I would have made the decision to go for it.

Since re-locating to Northern Ireland three years ago, I've had good medical care and am now under a proper Neurologist, which I am grateful for. I go for further EEG video monitoring in early March; hopefully, this will pick up further information that may possibly lead to surgery. Time will tell.  

All the points mentioned above are great ways of coping with memory loss. I love voluntary editing as it keeps my spelling, grammar, and punctuation intact. I use a diary whereby I write down daily occurrences and my schedule of tasks, and I also do Word Search puzzles which I find therapeutic and relaxing. 

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