Harvard Health Letter

Do we lose memories forever?

Ask the doctor

Q. When we lose memories, do we lose them forever? A friend told me they may still be in our brains.

A. Our memories are stored inside nerve cells in our brains, often in multiple cells that communicate with each other. Each nerve cell looks a little like a tree, with a trunk, branches and, ultimately, little "twigs" (called spines). The spines of one cell communicate with those of another cell by releasing chemicals.

Until recently, scientists assumed that memories lost because of dementia were permanently lost. Yet there was reason to question that, because memory loss can be fitful. Like me, you may have seen people with Alzheimer's disease who forget the name of their child until one afternoon, the name is there again. And, like me, maybe you've thought that the memories may not be permanently lost. Perhaps they're just buried deeper and are harder to access.

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