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Epilepsy and Memory Loss

Contributor Rani A. Sarkis, MD, MSc
4 minute read
A doctor and patient review brain scans.

Epilepsy has a serious effect on memory. People with epilepsy may have a tough time remembering words, facts, and even things that have happened to them.

Rani A. Sarkis, MD, MSc, a Mass General Brigham neurologist, describes the signs and symptoms of epilepsy and explains the relationship between epilepsy and memory loss. Dr. Sarkis is an epilepsy specialist who cares for patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

What are the signs and symptoms of epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain. People with epilepsy struggle with seizures.

Although the signs and symptoms of epilepsy can vary widely, they can include:

  • Temporary confusion
  • Uncontrollable jerking movements
  • Generalized shaking
  • Staring spells
  • Subjective sensations such as sudden fear, an out-of-body sensation, or a rising sensation from the stomach

Patients may have trouble remembering certain things around the time of a seizure. They also may find it hard to think clearly during or after a seizure.

How does epilepsy affect memory?

Epilepsy can create difficulties with:

  • Short and long-term memory
  • Attention and multitasking
  • Language problems, such as difficulty recalling words
  • Visual-spatial skills, such as someone’s sense of direction

Epilepsy can cause more than one kind of seizure. Different seizures can have different impacts on patients’ memory depending on which area of the brain they affect. For example:

  • Generalized seizures affect the whole brain.
  • Focal seizures can affect specific areas of the brain.

Many other factors can affect memory in people with epilepsy. Some of these factors are fixed (meaning permanent), such as if you have a history of a prior brain injury.

"There are many factors of epilepsy and memory loss that are not fixed, however," says Dr. Sarkis. "These can include if your epilepsy is not under good control, if you are not sleeping well, if you are under a lot of stress, or if you are taking substances that can slow your brain down."

How do doctors diagnose epilepsy and memory loss?

If you experience epilepsy symptoms or memory loss, talk to your primary care provider (PCP) if you don’t already have a neurologist. They can help refer you to a neurologist.

A neurologist can do a simple screening to see if you need more testing. They may ask you to take a neuropsychological test, an in-depth test of different brain functions. They also may perform brain imaging, brain wave testing, and blood work.

Your doctor can use this data to better understand what could be affecting you and how to manage it.

There’s a lot your doctor can do about your memory problems. So don’t get discouraged, and make sure you tell them if you are struggling.

Rani A. Sarkis, MD, MSc
Mass General Brigham

What is the treatment for epilepsy and memory problems?

Your treatment depends on which condition contributes to your symptoms and memory problems.

“For example, your doctor may decide to change your seizure medication or add another one if they think your epilepsy is not well-controlled,” says Dr. Sarkis, “or if they think your seizure medication is affecting your thinking. They can also work with you to achieve better sleep because the quality of your sleep also affects your memory.”

In some cases, a doctor may refer you to a cognitive rehabilitation program. There, therapists work with you to focus on your thinking and memory.

Anxiety and depression also can affect your ability to think and focus. Your doctor can address any feelings of anxiety or depression you may feel, or they may refer you to a mental health specialist who can.

In some cases, your treatment team may recommend you start taking medication to help with your attention.

“There’s a lot your doctor can do about your memory problems,” says Dr. Sarkis. “So don’t get discouraged, and make sure you tell them if you are struggling.”

Rani A. Sarkis, MD, MSc