Learning and Memory Problems in Epilepsy

Memory and learning problems are common in people with epilepsy. In fact, memory issues are one of the most common, frustrating issues of epilepsy. Memory issues impact quality of life and those caring for the person with epilepsy.1

Many adults with epilepsy report changes in their ability to remember names or faces. Managing money may become a problem. Children with epilepsy may have trouble paying attention or learning new things at school.

Doctors believe certain kinds of seizures impact memory and learning. It depends on where in the brain seizures take place. Generalized seizures seem to affect memory less than focal seizures. People with drug-resistant epilepsy tend to have more memory problems.2

Types of memory problems in epilepsy

There are specific ways epilepsy affects the ability to think. This includes problems with:2,3

  • Attention
  • Making plans
  • Thinking through everyday situations
  • Stopping unwanted behavior
  • Remembering
  • Language

Memory issues are tied to the part of the brain impacted by a seizure. Depending on the brain lobe, memory problems may be:4

  • Problems storing information
  • Problems retrieving information
  • Problems of attention and processing information

Sometimes these memory problems are permanent. Sometimes brain fog lifts minutes or hours after a seizure. Other times, changing medicines can help.3,4

Causes

Many things may cause thinking problems in people with epilepsy. These issues include:2,3

  • Structural issues in the brain that cause seizures
  • Changes in the brain caused by seizures
  • Some epilepsy treatments
  • Mental health disorders caused by epilepsy
  • Natural aging process (in older adults)
  • Sleep problems common in epilepsy

Epilepsy affects thinking differently in everyone. A person’s ability to think and remember will depend on:1

  • How long they have had epilepsy
  • How long each seizure lasts
  • How many and how severe the seizures are
  • The side effects of medicines
  • Their natural abilities

Diagnosing these issues

Someone with memory problems may need to see a type of psychologist called a neuropsychologist.

A neuropsychologist is a psychologist who treats behavioral and thinking problems. A neuropsychological exam includes a series of tests that look at how the brain is working.5

Tests may take 2 to 5 hours and include:5

  • An interview
  • Paper and pencil tests
  • Self-reports or reports from loved ones

These tests measure many things related to a person’s thinking skills, such as:5

  • Ability to pay attention and for how long
  • Memory
  • Language skills
  • Motivation and mood
  • Personality type
  • Ability to plan and understand abstract concepts
  • Senses such as hearing and seeing

The test results are not a judgment of someone’s intelligence. The test results help the psychologist and your doctor understand what parts of the brain are affected. This information guides treatment.5

Treatments for memory loss

Treatments for memory problems are as complex as epilepsy itself. But it is important to treat memory problems. Treatment improves quality of life and self-care. After all, it is hard to control seizures if you forget to take your medicine.1

What works for each person is different, but some common options are:6-8

  • Changes in epilepsy drugs
  • Memory training and aids
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Occupational therapy

It is important to talk with your doctor if you are worried about memory issues.

In addition to memory and thinking problems, other complications may also occur.These include:

Unwanted drug side effectsInjuries due to accidentsIncontinenceSleep issuesStatus epilepticus or seizure clustersSudden unexplained death in epilepsy (SUDEP)

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: November 2021