An Amazing Example of the Neuroplasticity of Memory

The Washington Post published an article1 about a woman, Su Meck, who lost her memory when she was 22. A ceiling fan fell on her head, erasing her memory. After a week in a coma she awoke with the mental capacity of a young child. She did not recognize her husband or her two baby sons. She could no longer read or write, walk, eat, dress, drive, and she could barely speak. An MRI scan revealed that her brain was suffused with cracks. It was said that it looked like shaken Jell-O. She had complete retrograde amnesia, the inability to remember the past. Initially she could not learn new information, so her hippocampi apparently had also been damaged. She had lost her personality.

Fortunately she had a very supportive family. They patiently worked with her. Her mother assembled a photo album filled with images of the childhood she had completely forgotten. She actively tried to regain her lost capacities. She relearned her muliplication tables from her children. She volunteered in her children’s school library so she could hide in the stacks and read. During the first few years talking on the telephone was disorienting, so she communicated with her family using letters. She had the spelling and penmanship of a small child.

When she left the hospital she completed a checklist of tasks that she wanted to accomplish such as riding a bicycle, preparing a meal and reading a children’s book. The first book she read was Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop.” Her functionality gradually returned. When she drove home, she had difficulty remembering where home was so she would click her garage door opener looking for a hint as to which address was hers.

Nineteen years after the accident Su started Montgomery Junior College. Her children gave her tips on what to bring to class, how to take notes, how to ask questions, and how to write papers. Learning was difficult and slow. But she persevered and struggled along until she learned. And she learned well. She earned her associates degree with a 3.9 average and became chapter president of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society. Su and her husband are planning to move to Massachusetts where she will enroll in Smith college as a transfer student and start working on her bachelor’s degree.

This is the most remarkable example of neuroplasticity of which I am aware. How could she possibly do this? I think there are two essential elements. She had a very supportive family who perservered under adverse circumstances and stuck with her all the way. Su also deserves most of the credit herself. She believed in herself under the most adverse circumstances and persevered to where she was able to return to her own self and continue her life. Lesser individuals likely would remain in a vegetative state or only achieve modest degrees of recovery.

1de Vise, D. (2011) Gaithersburg Woman Earns a College Degree Two Decades After Complete Memory Loss. Washington Post, 21 May.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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