The presence of memory difficulties in people with epilepsy is well recognised. In fact people with epilepsy seek help for memory problems more often than for any other impairment. Research has shown that a large portion of memory is located in a specific area of the brain known as the temporal lobe.
The temporal lobe
There are a number of reasons why people with epilepsy may have memory difficulties.
- Epileptic seizures can affect memory functioning because, in order for memory to work properly, the brain needs continuous self-monitoring. This self-monitoring system can be disrupted during a seizure. Memories before a seizure can be lost, as they have not been fully incorporated into our memory system. During a seizure our memory may also be affected, because a loss of consciousness can interfere with normal brain processes, disrupting the encoding and storage of information. The confusion that can occur following a seizure can also prevent our memory from working properly. Some people with epilepsy can experience unusual electrical activity within the brain between seizures and this can also affect attention and memory functioning.
- An underlying brain tumour or lesion can disrupt the memory process. Therefore if a tumour or lesion is located in the temporal lobe, which is a part of the brain needed for memory, this may also cause memory problems.
- Some anti-epileptic medications may interfere with memory functioning as they can affect the speed at which the brain can process information. On the other hand they also reduce seizure frequency and, as we have discussed, frequent seizures can also cause memory impairment. If you are worried your medication may be affecting your memory, it is important to speak to your doctor about your concerns. They can investigate this possibility and will discuss possible solutions with you.
Memory problems can affect people in different ways. It may be that a person’s memory problems are very general, and will therefore affect most areas of memory functioning. However they can also be very specific and might only affect one aspect of memory functioning, such as remembering what people tell you.
Memory problems can cause a range of difficulties, making it difficult to cope with everyday living and relationships. These difficulties can cause a great deal of distress for the person affected. However, while a memory problem cannot be cured, it is possible to adapt to having a memory impairment, making it easier to cope and live a relatively normal life.
In order to get an accurate assessment of your memory function, the doctor may suggest carrying out a neuropsychological assessment. Neuropsychological simply means looking at the processes that the brain carries out, one of which is memory. This assessment aims to get an accurate idea of how well your memory is currently functioning and will be carried out by a psychologist. It will look at all areas of your memory ability. More specifically it will be looking at your ability to remember pictures, stories and numbers. Through looking at these areas, the psychologist will be able to discover where your memory difficulties lie and if there is any difference between your:
- visual memory (your ability to remember pictures); and
- verbal memory (your ability to remember information presented orally).
This information then provides some focus on which memory enhancement strategies are going to be the most helpful to you.