On Friday, the newest Disney Pixar film Finding Dory hits theaters. A sequel to Finding Nemo, Finding Dory follows the familiar blue tang fish as she embarks on a journey to find her family and battles short term memory loss along the way.
Though Dory remembers being separated from her family at a young age, she struggles with creating new memories and holding onto new information. Every 10 seconds or so, it’s as if Dory’s memory resets and she’s forgotten everything, which leaves her having to start anew.
Some of Dory’s symptoms are consistent with anterograde amnesia, a condition that affects someone’s ability to take in and recall new information. Because of this difficulty encoding new information, Dory’s progress is slow-going as she forgets things like acquaintances, directions, and the task at hand.
The brain is a complex system of neurons and synapses that work together using proteins to form memories in the brain. Explaining the work of neuroscientist Eric Kandel, Smithsonian Magazine’s Greg Miller writes, “In five decades of research, Kandel has shown how short-term memories—those lasting a few minutes—involve relatively quick and simple chemical changes to the synapse that make it work more efficiently.” Kandel, who won a share of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, found that “to build a memory that lasts hours, days or years, neurons must manufacture new proteins to make the neurotransmitter traffic run more efficiently. Long-term memories must literally be built into the brain’s synapses.”
All told, our understanding of how memories are organized, stored, and recalled is still very much in development. Neuroscience is a thorny subject, but we do know that creating and recalling memories isn’t limited to a single part of the brain, but several parts. So, when one or more of those parts is compromised by something like illness, tumors, or traumatic brain injury, it may affect our ability to encode or recall information.
Anterograde amnesia is not always permanent, as evidenced by a case in which a woman with a brain tumor saw a full recovery after the tumor was removed. But this isn’t necessarily a common case, and many patients affected due to irreversible damage to the part of the brain may or may not find success in cognitive therapies.
That said, there are a variety of methods often used for treating patients with different forms of amnesia. Diane Roberts Stoler outlines several methods in Psychology Today, among them cognitive and occupational therapy, hypnosis, bilateral sounds, and the use of technology to help patients cope with memory loss.
Recovering memory function isn’t a straight-line path and doesn’t work the same for every patient, but there instances of people with anterograde amnesia being able to encode new information.
A patient called H.M. who had nearly all of his hippocampus and amygdala (along with the cortex surrounding those areas on both sides) removed was left with severe anterograde amnesia. He worked with the same researchers for decades and didn’t know who they were. But testing proved that he was able to encode some new semantic information (that is, factual information that doesn’t require personal context). What’s more, further testing found that H.M.’s brain created procedural memories, too.
Even though Finding Dory is a film meant to entertain, there is some scientific truth to Dory’s condition. Memory is still a deeply complex thing that we’re only beginning to understand, and whether or not Dory might be able to find her way to encoding and recovering new information is hard to say. But Dory’s story does allow us to look at anterograde amnesia through the lens of popular culture and gives us real-world context for talking about a complicated concept.