Posts Tagged ‘Rehabilitation’

An Inspirational and Informative Case of Memory Loss

October 9, 2011

A recent article1 reported a case of memory loss that was both inspirational and informative. This was the story of Lonni Sue Johnston who was an accomplished illustrator, musician, pilot, and farmer. She had done half a dozen covers for the New Yorker magazine. Then a virus invaded her brain causing encephalitis and severely injury her hippocampus. As readers of the Healthymemory Blog know, the hippocampus is a subcortical structure that plays a key role in the formation of new memories. Initially she had trouble walking, talking, and eating. Her cognitive functioning was severely affected. She recognized only a few people, her mother, her sister, and a few faces from her childhood. She could no longer draw.

Her mother had her daughter try to copy simple shapes. Although progress was slow, she eventually was able to draw again. A friend, who was a puzzle-maker, dropped off word search books. These exercises enabled her to rebuild her vocabulary. She started making grids with words hidden in them and created her own puzzles. She created elaborate word lists, then puzzles from the lists, and them images from the puzzles. A grid of words for things that hang in the closet formed the shape of a coat hanger. Words related to trousers formed a pair of pants.

She still can’t recognize art that she adored before her illness, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” for instance, but she can recognize her own past work. Although she has not reached the degree of proficiency that she once had, she has improved enough to have her own exhibition at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

It is instructive to consider what she can and cannot do. She remembers how to fly an airplane, but doesn’t remember the death of her father. She doesn’t remember that she was married for ten years, but she can play Bach suites on her viola. When her mother thanks her for playing, she does not remember that she has played.

She continues to rise at 5:30 in the morning and spends most of her working hours drawing and creating puzzles. Her family is keeping everything she has produced, hoping that it will offer insight into the relationship between neural science and creativity.

It is interesting that most of what has recovered has been what is termed implicit memory (see the immediately preceding blog post, “Explicit and Implicit” memory). Motor skills are primarily in the domain of implicit memory, which appears to be more robust than explicit memory. She had developed an interesting technique for rebuilding her vocabulary, which seems to capitalize on using implicit to make memories explicit.

For another inspirational story of recovery from memory loss, see the Healthymemory Blog Post, “An Amazing Example of the Neuroplasticity of Memory.”

1Pancake, J. (2011). A “self” portrait of an artist with memory loss. Washington Post Style Section, September 19.

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