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Transient epileptic amnesia: a description of the clinical and neuropsychological features in 10 cases and a review of the literature


OBJECTIVES To clarify the clinical and neuropsychological aspects of transient epileptic amnesia (TEA) based on 10 personally studied cases as well as review of 21 previously published cases; and to propose tentative diagnostic criteria for the diagnosis of TEA.

METHODS All 10 patients and informants underwent a standardised clinical interview. The radiological and neurophysiological (EEG) data were also reviewed in all cases. The diagnosis of transient epileptic amnesia was made on the basis of the following criteria: (1) there was a history of recurrent witnessed episodes of transient amnesia; (2) cognitive functions other than memory were judged to be intact during typical episodes by a reliable witness; (3) there was evidence for a diagnosis of epilepsy. This evidence was provided by either (a) wake or sleep EEG, or (b) the co-occurrence of other seizure types (if their roughly concurrent onset or close association with episodes of transient amnesia suggested a connection), or (c) a clear cut response to anticonvulsant therapy, or by a combination of these three factors. In addition all patients were administered a comprehensive neuropsychological test battery designed to assess verbal and non-verbal anterograde memory and retrograde memory for famous personalities and personal events. Their results were compared with those of 25 age and IQ matched normal controls.

RESULTS TEA usually begins in later life, with a mean age of 65 years in this series. Episodes are typically brief, lasting less than one hour, and recurrent, with a mean frequency of three a year. Attacks on waking are characteristic. Repetitive questioning occurs commonly during attacks. The anterograde amnesia during episodes is, however, often incomplete so that patients may later be able to “remember not being able to remember”. The extent of the retrograde amnesia during attacks varies from days to years. Most patients experience other seizure types compatible with an origin in the temporal lobes, but transient amnesia is the only manifestation of epilepsy in about one third of patients. Epileptiform abnormalities arising from the temporal lobes are most often detected on interictal sleep EEG. Despite normal performance on tests of anterograde memory, many patients complain of persistent interictal disturbance of autobiographical memory, involving a significant but variable loss of recall for salient personal episodes. The epochs affected may predate the onset of epilepsy by many years.

CONCLUSIONS TEA is an identifiable syndrome and comprises episodic transient amnesia with an epileptic basis, without impairment of other aspects of cognitive function. Future studies should consider the question of whether TEA reflects ictal activity or a postictal state, and the mechanism of the persistent autobiographical amnesia. It is hypothesised that the latter may result in part from impairment of very long term memory consolidation as a result of epileptic activity in mesial temporal structures.

  • Transient epileptic amnesia
  • electroencephalography

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