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  • No one likes going to the dentist, but it's  essential for the health of your teeth.  

  • The worst most people encounter in the dental  chair is the pain of that novocain injection,  

  • the irritating sound of the drilland the annoying numbness after it.

  • But for one British soldier,  

  • a visit to the dentist for root canal  surgery had shocking consequences.

  • It was 2005, and William wasmember of the British Armed Forces  

  • stationed in Germany. His Grandfather had  recently passed away, so he flew back to  

  • Britain to pay his regards before returning to his  base. Life was good. He was serving his country,  

  • he was happily married and the father of  an 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son,  

  • and was an active man in good health who  frequented the gym and played volleyball.  

  • But he had a nagging tooth issue, and neededroot canal. So he made an appointment for the  

  • Dentist on March 14th, sat down in that chair, and  let the dentist inject him with local anesthetic.

  • It was the last thing he would ever remember.

  • William's case has become one of the greatest  medical mysteries in modern British history.  

  • Because after he was injected with  the anesthetic, his mind goes blank.  

  • What little we know of the day of the procedure is  from William's dentist. The injection seemed to go  

  • fine and William seemed healthy as he came into  the office. It was only after the surgery, when  

  • the dentist asked him to remove his glasses, that  everything went wrong. William was unusually pale,  

  • and couldn't stand up easily. He needed to lie  down while the office called his wife to pick  

  • him up, and when she arrived he stared blankly  at her. He didn't recognize her, and seemed to  

  • be in a mental fog. It was clear something was  very wrong, and he was taken to the hospital.

  • It took a while for the mental fog to  disappear, but what followed was even stranger.

  • Interviews with William revealed he remembered  everything up to his surgery with perfect clarity.  

  • But roughly every ninety minutes, his  mind reset - and the last thing he  

  • could remember was sitting down in that  dentist's chair to get the anesthetic.  

  • Not exactly a pleasant memory to look back onand also a condition with no clear medical cause.  

  • The first suspicion was that he had a negative  reaction to the anesthetic, possibly due to an  

  • allergy. This could cause a brain hemorrhage, and  the brain bleed could damage the memory center  

  • of the brain. Tests were ordered - and quickly  came up blank, with no evidence of brain injury.

  • The doctors knew what was wrong with  William - but the why was a mystery.

  • With no way to treat William  and no physical cause,  

  • he was soon discharged into the care of  his family. They moved back to England,  

  • where they sought out the help of an expert  - Clinical psychologist Gerald Burgess,  

  • who was experienced in amnesia disorders. While  amnesia is a common condition often related to  

  • brain injury, William's symptoms didn't match  the more common retrograde amnesia - where people  

  • lose past memories. He had anterograde amnesiawhere all or most past memories are preserved,  

  • but new ones are constantly erased. It's  usually caused by benzodiazepine drug use or  

  • brain injury that damages the hippocampus  caused by trauma, illness, or surgery. It  

  • can also be caused in a milder form by alcohol  intoxication, which causes people to black out.

  • But William's case didn't  match any of these factors.

  • There were relatively few cases of anterograde  amnesia as serious as William's, but Burgess was  

  • able to study the strange case of Henry Molaison.  A young man who suffered from severe epilepsy,  

  • he underwent an experimental and radical  surgery to remove the lobes from his brain  

  • to try to control the seizures. The removed areas  included the hippocampi, two curved regions at the  

  • center of the brain that control the recording of  episodic memories. While it worked and made his  

  • epilepsy more manageable, it removed the part of  his brain that allowed him to form new memories.  

  • While his cognitive abilities seemed intactanything he learned was quickly erased  

  • and he lived in a care home until his death  almost fifty years after his surgery. His case  

  • was heavily debated, and his brain was studied  post-death for insights into how memory works.

  • But activity in William's brain seemed normal  - sending Burgess seeking other answers.

  • It soon became clear that William's case  was different from Henry's. Henry couldn't  

  • remember new things that happened to him, but  the areas of his brain that stored knowledge  

  • of skills were intact. Researchers would teach  him things, and he would maintain those skills  

  • even as his memories vanished. But when  Burgess asked William to master a complex maze,  

  • he seemed able to do it - only for the skill  to then vanish like chalk being erased from a  

  • chalkboard. Every time he tried, he would make  the same errors and progress at the same rate.

  • This raises the question - is it all in his head?

  • Well, the answer is probably yes, given that the  brain is in the head. But in the absence of any  

  • obvious trauma that would cause William's amnesiaBurgess turned to psychological possibilities.  

  • Psychogenic amnesia is a common memory disorder  that causes memory loss from a period ranging from  

  • hours to years, and usually involves suppressing  information that's particularly traumatic.  

  • It usually involves retrograde amnesia, where  people can't remember past trauma. But cases of  

  • anterograde amnesia with this cause are virtually  unheard of. Burgess wasn't ready to rule it out,  

  • and interviewed William's wife Samantha and  others to see if he had experienced any trauma.  

  • Aside from the recent death of his grandfather  - which he still remembered - William didn't  

  • seem to have anything that would  explain this bizarre memory loss,  

  • and current interviews with him seemed to  show an overall emotionally healthy person.

  • So what's the answer to this medical mystery?

  • To this day, Burgess still doesn't  know exactly - but the doctor has  

  • theories. While the brain is full of  critical regions like the hippocampi,  

  • it depends on something much smaller to keep  functioning - the synapses. These microscopic  

  • neural connections carry memories from the short  term to the long term via millions of tiny paths.  

  • To send memories into our long term memory and  ensure we can look back on critical memories  

  • for years to come, there needs to be a supply  of proteins to keep the synapses in shape.  

  • If the brain isn't producing enough of  this protein, the memories all fade away  

  • just like more insignificant memories. Can you  remember exactly what you ate for lunch on June  

  • 1st, 2007? Probably not, and that's because  your brain is selective about what it keeps.  

  • The brain wouldn't be capable of storing  every bit of information we encounter every  

  • day, so it sorts through them in the short-term  memory and ensures only the important ones stay.

  • But a study with rats indicates this critical  connection may be more tenuous than we know.

  • It's common to do experiments with rats to  test how they learn new skills. So common,  

  • in fact, thatrats in a mazeandthe rat race”  have become basic euphemisms. But an experiment  

  • that introduced a compound that would block  these proteins in the synapses from forming  

  • proved that the rats would learn new  skills - and then forget them soon,  

  • puzzling over the same mazes and tasks they had  just learned. This was the closest comparison  

  • to what William seemed to be experiencing. While  Henry Molaison no longer had the physical parts  

  • of his brain he needed to form new memoriesWilliam seemed to have lost the connection he  

  • needed to make memories permanent. Think of  the brain as a printer. It was as if someone  

  • had taken a hammer to Henry's printer - but  William's may have simply ran out of ink.

  • The question is - why? And  has it ever happened before?

  • Burgess combed the history of medicine to find  similar cases to William's, hoping to find an  

  • answer for his patient. The pickings were slimHe found five cases where patients had suffered  

  • a mysterious memory loss without a physical  or drug-related trauma associated with it.  

  • But if there was a direct connection to undergoing  a dental procedure, it wasn't found here. While  

  • none of the other five had been to the dentist  or had a root canal, they all seemed to undergo  

  • serious stress due to a medical emergencyCould the stress of medical intervention  

  • trigger a strange chemical reaction in the brainBurgess can't say yes - but he also can't say no.

  • Oddly, the most helpful case  study may come from fiction.

  • In a crazy coincidence, a year before William's  case began, a popular Hollywood movie gave us  

  • a case study with shocking similarities to  William's. And it just happened to star...Adam  

  • Sandler. 50 First Dates also starred Drew  Barrymore as an unfortunate young woman whose  

  • car accident left her with a brain injury andticking 24-hour clock on her memory - resetting  

  • to the day before her accident every morningThat made it tricky for Sandler's character to  

  • win her heart - over and over and over againWhile the movie was a romantic comedy and not  

  • a medical study, it did illustrate a potential  solution to the problem of anterograde memory  

  • loss - creating reminders tocatch upthe person  with amnesia when they wake up each morning.

  • So has Hollywood given us the  answers to William's strange case?

  • In a word...no. Despite Gerald  Burgess' many theories about the case,  

  • William's condition has remained unchanged  and his memory is still frozen on March 14th,  

  • 2005. But he and his wife have figured out  a system that works similarly to the one in  

  • the movie - writing notes on his smartphone that  tell him to read them as soon as he sees the file.  

  • This catches him up and lets him know why he  can't remember anything - at least for ninety  

  • minutes. Burgess continued to study William's  case and published an acclaimed paper in the  

  • Neurocase journal with his theories in 2015,  wondering if the wiring around the hippocampi  

  • and other areas responsible for processing  memories may be the culprit. This brought  

  • new attention to William's case and allowed  similar cases around the world to be discovered,  

  • including an English woman who hit her head on  a pole and developed the same type of amnesia.

  • But one area of William's memory proved  more durable than expected - emotions.

  • It was shortly before his memory loss that  his grandfather died, becoming one of his  

  • last formative memories. And during his long  amnesia, he suffered another devastating loss  

  • when his father passed away. But unlike every  other memory from this period that faded into the  

  • ether as easily as long-forgotten lunches, this  one stayed. Today, he remembers that his father  

  • passed away even as his memory mysteriously  resets. But all other key details continue  

  • to fade away. When interviewed, he still  remembers his kids only as young children,  

  • even as they've grown into adulthood. And  despite the research of some of the world's  

  • foremost experts on the human brain, the secrets  of William's mystery remain just that - a secret.

  • For more on bizarre memory conditions,  

No one likes going to the dentist, but it's  essential for the health of your teeth.  

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A Man Went in for a Root Canal and Lost His Memory Forever

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    Summer posted on 2021/04/15
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