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How young people lose memory

Short-term, long-term memory loss occurs in college students every year

In March, the National Football League acknowledged for the first time the link between head injuries sustained while playing football and the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that results in the gradual deterioration of the brain and is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement, aggression, depression and dementia. The disease is thought to be caused by repeated concussions and injuries to the brain.


Many children grow up playing sports and often have suffered a concussion or two because of it.

During a concussion, the brain is jolted very suddenly, and the force causes the release of many ions and salts, creating a toxic environment in the brain.

Dr. Kristen Heinan, pediatric neurologist and assistant professor of neurology, explained these effects on the brain.

“[It’s like if] you take a bottle of rainbow sprinkles, you open it up and you throw it all over the room and then you say, ‘Okay, now put all the sprinkles back in the bottle,’” Heinan said. “So that’s kind of what the brain cells have to do after concussion. They’re all discombobulated, they can’t talk to each other [and] they can’t function.”

During recovery from concussion, individuals typically have trouble with long-term memory but usually recover completely, according to Dr. Donna Broshek, professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences. However, with more severe brain injuries, it is more likely that the individual will have persisting problems with long-term memory.

Despite this, Heinan cautioned against being too quick to make causative statements about football injuries and CTE, pointing out that though there is a link between CTE and concussions, detangling correlation and causation could be tricky, given that the data had been a little skewed. Healthy players had no reason to have their brains biopsied, so there wasn’t a good control group, she said.

“I would frankly be more worried about [drugs and alcohol] than the concussions, because you’re putting yourself at risk for the neurotoxicity of the chemicals,” Heinan said. “You’re also putting yourself at risk if you’re altered of getting another injury.” I would be much more concerned about substance abuse and brain injury than I would playing a game of soccer.”

Substance abuse

A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that in a survey of about 800 college students, 51 percent of college students that had ever consumed alcohol had experienced a blackout at least once.

Dr. Christopher Holstege, executive director of Elson Student Health Center, defined a blackout as full permanent loss of memory for interim events beginning and ending at definitive points.

According to Holstege, a rapid increase in blood alcohol concentration is most consistently associated with alcohol-induced blackouts. Therefore, drinking quickly, drinking on an empty stomach and drinking hard liquor increase the risk for blackouts.

“Not all subjects who drink rapidly and excessively experience blackouts,” Holstege said. “There is individual variability, most likely due in large part to genetics, in how each person will react to alcohols and substances of abuse. Such variability is hard to predict.”

While a person can actively engage in behaviors like walking and talking while experiencing a blackout, they cannot create any new memories. Someone experiencing a blackout can recall memories formed prior to intoxication, and short-term memory is partially intact as well, so someone undergoing a blackout is able to hold a normal conversation. Because of the nature of blackouts, it can be difficult to tell one is in the middle of one.

Fatigue and stress

While substance abuse and physical brain injuries are well-known causes of memory loss, stress and lack of sleep can also disrupt memory.

Stress leads to inattention and lack of focus that results in poor encoding of memory, according to Broshek.

“Slowing down, paying attention and being mindful are important to optimizing attention and getting information into long term memory,” Broshek said.

Sleep is also important for memory consolidation, so disruptions in sleep, or not sleeping enough, can lead to difficulty with memory, according to Heinan.

“If you’re really tired, there have been studies looking at fatigue versus alcohol, and they’re just as bad,” Heinan said. “Sometimes, lack of sleep is worse.”