Many people with epilepsy report they have problems with their memory. In fact, it’s one of the problems people with epilepsy most often seek help for. In these pages we look at how epilepsy can affect memory, how memory works, and give some hints and tips to help you cope with memory problems.
How can epilepsy affect memory?
There are many reasons why someone with epilepsy might have a problem with their memory.
Seizures can affect memory because for memory to work properly the brain needs to continuously monitor itself. Epileptic seizures can interfere with this self-monitoring process at any of the following stages:
- Before a seizure: memories from before a seizure can be lost as the brain does not store them properly
- During a seizure: loss of consciousness can stop the brain from recording and storing memories
- After a seizure: confusion can stop memory from working correctly
- Between seizures: Some people with epilepsy may have unusual electrical activity in the brain between seizures. This can affect attention and memory function
“After one of my seizures, I couldn't remember anything about my life. Then I heard a song from 1996 on the radio - so I started giving hospital staff details about me as if it was that year!”
Damage to the temporal lobe
Research shows that a large portion of memory is located in a part of the brain called the temporal lobe. So if your epilepsy is caused by a tumour or lesion in the temporal lobe, this can also cause memory problems.
Some epilepsy medicines may affect your memory, because they can slow down the speed at which your brain processes information. On the other hand, epilepsy medicines work to reduce the number of seizures you have. So if you have fewer seizures, this may actually help your memory.
The impact of epilepsy on your life might make you feel stressed, anxious or depressed. Seizures or your epilepsy medicine might affect your sleep. All these things can cause memory problems.
How are people with memory problems affected?
Memory problems can affect people in different ways. Some people find that most areas of their memory are affected. Other people have very specific problems that only affect one area of memory, such as remembering people’s names.
“I have difficulty finding everyday words. I always seem to be apologising and saying 'that thingy' or 'doodah' to describe what I mean.”
Memory problems can have a big impact on your life, causing problems in education, work, everyday life and relationships. They might make you feel embarrassed, anxious or depressed. While a memory problem cannot usually be cured, it is possible to adapt, making it easier to cope and live a relatively normal life.
“The memory loss for me is the worst part of my epilepsy. I have learnt to live with the seizures but the memory loss is frightening.”
Memory problems and work
We hear from lots of people with epilepsy who worry about the impact memory problems have on their work. Many of the hints and tips for improving your memory can be used in the workplace. It can help to talk to your employer and your colleagues about any extra support you might need. In the UK, if your employer knows about your epilepsy they must make reasonable adjustments to help you do your job. We have more information about reasonable adjustments in our epilepsy and work section.
“When I went back to work I used a diary all the time and had tick-lists, which my colleagues ended up using as well!”
“Setting aside an hour a week to run through next week’s plans works well for me. It doesn’t so much help store and recall ‘when and where’, but it’s a place to look.”
Memory problems and education
A study of school children with active epilepsy in West Sussex found that over half of the children had problems with memory. If your child has memory problems they may find learning more difficult, and may need extra support at school to help them remember what they are being taught. If you feel your child may have memory problems you should discuss these issues with the school. We have more information about epilepsy in schools.
The Centre for Working Memory and Learning at the University of York carries out research into memory and learning in childhood. Their website has information for parents and teachers, including a guide to supporting children with memory problems in the classroom.
If you are in higher education and have memory problems, you could speak to the college or university disability advisor about adjustments to help you. This could include recording lectures or being given extra time in exams. We have more information about epilepsy in higher education.
“The disability support services at my university provided me with a dictaphone and I was able to record all my lectures. I also would use my phone to record myself, and then right up to an exam I would put my headphones in and listen to myself right up until the exam door.”
“For a tough exam last year I spent a while changing catchy song lyrics to facts and theories and then listened on repeat. It definitely helped!”
Find out more about how memory works.
This information has been adapted from the booklet Memory and epilepsy, produced by Epilepsy Action and written by Professor Gus Baker and colleagues at the University of Liverpool. It has been updated by Epilepsy Action’s advice and information team, with input from people living with epilepsy. Download the Memory and epilepsy booklet.
Professor Gus Baker has no conflict of interest.
This information has been produced under the terms of The Information Standard.
- Updated November 2015To be reviewed November 2018