Severe Amnesia Caused by Common Cold Sore Virus

Can something as common as a simple cold sore (herpes simplex) virus create memory problems so severe that a once-brilliant person could develop total amnesia? I can, and it does. Approximately 2,000 Americans a year are stricken with herpes encephalitis that developed from the herpes simplex virus. Seventy percent of the patients who contact this die, and more than half of the survivors are left with some form of brain damage — although not as devastating as Clive’ Weather’s.

Clive was 40 years old in March of 1985 and had been married to Deborah for just 18 months. He was director of the London Lassus Ensemble; choirmaster of the famed London Sinfonietta; and one of the leading Renaissance music scholars in the world. His work was recognized all over England, and he had worked with many outstanding composers, including Beatle Ring Starr. He also put together a program of Renaissance wedding music for the BBC and the royal couple Charles and Diana, and presented the leather-bound program to Princess Diana   at Buckingham Palace.

He often worked seven days a week, and it wasn’t unusual for his to work until midnight or later. “He came home one night complaining of a headache,” said Deborah. “It was nothing remarkable.”   The next day the headache was so severe he told her it was like “someone was beating me with a hammer.” His teeth were chattering and so Deborah told him to stay in bed and call her at work if he needed anything. He said to her, “I can’t remember your number,” even though he had called it every day there. Their doctor diagnosed the flu, and prescribed a painkiller for the headache.

Within two days Clive was unable to remember his name or address, and the police found him wandering around dazed. He was taken to the hospital where a CAT scan and a spinal tap showed encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain caused by the cold sore virus. Stunned Deborah told the doctors Clive had never even had a cold sore. According to them, “The virus lies formant in most of the population without symptoms, very, very rarely it goes to the brain.” They diagnosed his as terminal.

Although Clive did recover physically, the damage to his frontal lobe, the part that plays a role in behavior and personality, was greatly affected. He still had his authoritative voice, but when asked to identify objects like pens or a tie he would say, “a chicken.” His behavior would sometimes become violent, and at other times childlike. Eventually, with medication, his behavior evened out.

One day Deborah took Clive to the chapel and sat him down in front of the organ. Although he could no longer read a book, it seemed he could read music, and was able to play the piano. “It was like someone had given him a gift,” Deborah said. According to New York neurologist and author of the book Awakenings, Oliver Sacks, “Music is part of Clive’s procedural memory, like walking or riding a bike.” “While he was playing music he seemed normal,” says Deborah. “The moment he stopped he became lost again.”

What was once a promising music career ended abruptly in what was reported to be the most extreme case of amnesia ever recorded. “Clive’s memory is a mere seven seconds long,” says Deborah, “Any new information given to him melts as fast as snowflakes on the skin.” The herpes simplex virus had “traveled to his brain and wiped out his entire memory center, including the hippocampus and areas that control emotion and behavior.”

The brain is indeed a complicated piece of work! Scientists are still not able to answer questions like, “How is it that when the memory is erased there are still areas that can be brought back — like music?” Every day Clive repeats the same sentence over and over again, day after day. He still could look into Deborah’s eyes and tell her he loved her, yet couldn’t remember her name. How many parts of the brain are involved in memory? The greatest neurologists in the world are still exploring these answers, and they still are finding new discoveries that make them rethink previous studies.

I am Ron White,   two-time USA Memory Champion.

Memory Training


Reader’s Digest — Forget Me Not, pg. 26, June 2006 edition

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