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Research Portfolio


Seizures that damage memory: transient epileptic amnesia


Grant round winners 2007

grant amount:

£18,000 over three years

lead investigator:

Professor Adam Zeman, Dr Catherine Haslam and Ms Dominika Pindus



Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter


Many people with epilepsy complain of having problems with their memory. Seizures themselves, anti-epileptic medicines, mood changes and any underlying brain condition can all disrupt memory, especially if they affect the temporal lobe, the part of the brain which coordinates the storing of new memories and the retrieval of old ones.

Disruption to the temporal lobe can affect either short or long term memory, or both. It can affect particular types of memory but not others. One person with epilepsy may not remember what happened last week, but clearly recall their schooldays; another may often forget specific words, but remember events well; another may keep forgetting where they’re going and why.

There is a form of temporal lobe epilepsy where the main sign of a seizure is a 15- to 30-minute period of forgetting. This is called transient epileptic amnesia (TEA). This type of epilepsy mainly affects middle-aged adults. Seizures occur about once a month. People with TEA often find they forget recent memories quickly, but they also forget important episodes in their own lives, often from years before they developed epilepsy. This is called autobiographical amnesia and is an especially upsetting aspect of this form of epilepsy, affecting patients’ sense of personal identity.

Researchers at the Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter, have already carried out a series of clinical and imaging studies of 50 patients with TEA, to establish the nature of their epilepsy and the way it affects their memory. In this project, Professor Adam Zeman, Dr Catherine Haslam and Ms Dominika Pindus will now focus on autobiographical memory loss, in about twenty patients with TEA and twenty comparison patients who do not have TEA.

They will look at the underlying biology of the brain that contributes to this effect, and the exact nature of what gets forgotten, for example:

  • Which sorts of episodes are forgotten, e.g., public or personal; dating from childhood, adolescence or adulthood?
  • How quickly does this memory loss occur?
  • Does the age of onset of epilepsy make any difference?
  • Do any psychological or social factors predict this form of memory loss?
  • Why are some memories spared?

They will also look at the effect of autobiographical amnesia on social interactions and psychological health, how TEA should be treated and how it might be prevented.

This project, entitled “The impairment of memory in epilepsy: the significance of autobiographical amnesia” is funded in collaboration with the Economic and Social Research Council
(CASE Studentships programme). Epilepsy Research UK will contribute £18,000 over three years and the ESRC will contribute approximately £60,000.

We would like to thank everyone who responded to our appeal last year enabling us to support this project.

This is one of five grants made by the Epilepsy Research Foundation (now Epilepsy Research UK) in 2007. Read about the other grants from 2007 here

The Study