Retrograde Amnesia

Given that the hippocampus is needed to bind together features for storage in long-term memory, one can ask how long the consolidation process takes. Studies of retrograde amnesia in patients with hippocampal damage provide an answer to this question. Not only do hippocampal lesions cause anterograde amnesia that disrupts new learning, but they also cause loss of events that occurred prior to the accidents or strokes that caused the lesions. By studying how far back in the past the patients’ retrograde amnesia extends, one can determine the length of time the hippocampus stays involved with the retrieval of learned events. The temporal gradient of amnesia for past events is shown for different groups of participants , as compiled by Squire, Haist, and Shimamura. They tested patients’ recall of public events that had occurred from 1950 to 1985.

As can be seen, amnesic patients recalled just as many public events from the 1950s as did normal controls. However, the amnesic patients did progressively worse than did the controls for the events from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that occurred closer to the date they suffered hippocampal lesions. Presumably, the consolidation process had not yet been completed for these events, and therefore they were lost to retrograde amnesia.

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