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Short-Term Memory Loss: Potential Causes and Treatments

Written by Puya Yazdi, MD | Last updated:
Matt Carland
Medically reviewed by
Matt Carland, PhD (Neuroscience) | Written by Puya Yazdi, MD | Last updated:

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From having simple conversations to doing complex assignments at work or school, we all rely on short-term memory to get through the day. Unfortunately, many different factors can potentially contribute to short-term memory loss. Read on to find out what causes these memory problems, and the science behind some of the supplements, medical techniques, and other factors that are being explored for their potential effects on short-term memory!

What Is Memory?

Broadly speaking, “memory” is the storing of information in your brain for later use. However, even though we often use just a single word to refer to this concept as a whole, there are actually many different specific types of memory!

“Short-term memory” specifically refers to the storing of information for a short amount of time, in a state you can easily access. An example of this would be trying to remember a phone number you were just told and could not write down.

Unlike “long-term memory,” this type of short-term memory can be lost rapidly unless you actively try to memorize it. The act of trying to keep something in your memory, such as repeating the name of someone you just met over and over, is called “rehearsing”.

Short-term memory is very similar to “working memory,” although the two have important differences. “Short-term memory” just deals with the temporary storing of information, while “working memory” refers both to the short-term storage of information as well as active manipulation of that information.

For example, trying to remember a phone number until you have a chance to write it down would fall under short-term memory, whereas trying to remember a phone number while adding ‘1’ to each number and then repeating it back would be an example of using working memory.

However, both types of memory are interrelated, and – in general – anything that affects working memory usually also affects short-term memory [1].

Together, short-term and working memory are also very distinct from the other major types of memory such as “autobiographical-”, “semantic-”, and “long-term” memory – and so it makes sense to talk about them together.

What Is Short-Term Memory Loss?

Short-term memory loss involves frequently losing track of recent or ongoing events. Examples of this could include situations like forgetting where you left your keys, walking into a room and not remembering why you entered it, or forgetting the topic of conversation while talking to someone.

Of course, everyday examples like these happen to everyone once in a while, and are not cause for concern by themselves! However, if these kinds of things happen to you more frequently than usual, this might hint at a more serious underlying problem (such as “brain fog,” for example).

People who are suffering from short-term memory loss usually don’t have problems remembering things from their childhood (i.e. “long-term” or “autobiographical” memory), or how to drive or ride a bike (“procedural” memory). This is because these types of memories are kept separately in the brain, and only a very major health problem would be able to impair all of them at the same time. However, smaller or more subtle health issues can affect these memory systems individually – which is why short-term memory loss is usually specific only to this type of memory.

What Causes Short-Term Memory Loss?

Drugs that May Contribute to Short-Term Memory Loss

Statins, a family of drugs that lower cholesterol levels, have sometimes been associated with short-term memory loss [2, 3].

Two common recreational drugs, cannabis and cocaine, have also been reported to significantly impair attention and short-term memory in people who abuse them for “recreational” purposes [4, 5].

The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is particularly well-known for its role in memory. Scopolamine hydrobromide – a drug that blocks acetylcholine – has been reported to produce dementia-like deficits in short-term memory, according to studies in both young and elderly people [6].

Additionally, a study involving 72 social drinkers, alcohol was reported to significantly impair working memory (specifically, by interfering with memory rehearsal) [7].

Benzodiazepines, a class of drugs also commonly known as “tranquilizers” due to their sedative effects, have been reported to prevent the transfer of information from short-term memory to long-term memory [8].

Psychological Conditions that May Involve Short-Term Memory Impairment

While depression is primarily thought of as a mood disorder, it can also have significant cognitive symptoms as well.

For example, one study in 25 people with depression reported significant impairments in short-term memory and attention in these patients [9].

Other psychiatric conditions – such as schizophrenia, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and PTSD – are also believed to often involve significant cognitive deficits as well.

For example, a series of studies in schizophrenia patients reported significant limitations in their short-term memory capacity [10].

Additionally, a study with 32 generalized anxiety disorder patients and 34 panic disorder patients reported impairments in these patients’ short-term memory and attention [11].

Studies in war veterans have reported associations between PTSD and significant short-term memory loss [12, 13].

One study has also reported that patients with bipolar disorder often display significant impairments in short-term memory (likely due to lower cognitive processing speed and problems with attention in these patients) [14].

Neurological Disorders that Can Cause Short-Term Memory Loss

Alzheimer’s disease is widely known to cause a variety of cognitive problems, including significant impairments in short-term memory [15, 16, 17, 18].

Although Parkinson’s disease is commonly considered a movement disorder, it is also associated with short-term memory loss – especially visual short-term memory [19, 20].

Patients with fibromyalgia often report suffering from deficits in working memory that effectively mimic the effects of being 20 years older. However, it is unclear whether this is due to problems in the brain itself, or whether this is because they are easily distracted due to their chronic pain symptoms [21].

One study in 531 patients with multiple sclerosis reported a significant decrease in episodic and verbal short-term memory in this patient population [22].

Disturbances in sleep are also widely believed to have a significant impact on a person’s short-term memory capacities. For example, one study in 21 people with REM-sleep behavior disorder reported a significant decline in visual short-term memory in these patients [23].

Finally, Korsakoff’s syndrome is a chronic memory disorder typically caused by alcoholism or vitamin deficiencies. It also commonly involves impairments in several aspects of short-term memory [24, 16].

Other Health Conditions that May Cause Short-Term Memory Issues

High blood pressure (hypertension) has been reported to interfere with short-term memory, possibly by leading to irregularities in the brain’s blood supply. For example, one study in children aged 6 to 16 reported that those with higher blood pressure performed relatively worse on measures of short-term memory, attention, and concentration [25, 26].

Similarly, a study of 20 adults with elevated blood pressure reported significant impairments in short-term memory and learning ability in these patients, compared to otherwise-healthy adults [27].

People who have suffered from head injuries, such as athletes or military veterans, have often been reported to develop a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). One of the most common symptoms of CTE is significant short-term memory impairment [28].

A study in 20 stroke patients reported a deficit in short-term memory involving hearing (auditory memory) in these patients, which could in turn significantly impair their ability to process language and music [29].

Additionally, another study in 25 adolescents with Lyme disease reported that these patients often suffer from reduced short-term memory (visual and verbal), as well as a variety of other cognitive issues [30].

When left untreated, the sexually-transmitted disease syphilis can spread to the brain, where it can, in turn, cause dementia (a condition known as “neurosyphilis”). This disease often results in significant impairments in short-term memory [31].

Stress May Contribute to Short-Term Memory Loss

One study in healthy 35 men has reported that increased stress (as measured through cortisol levels) significantly interfered with working memory performance [32].

In one other study in animals, rats exposed to different types of stress (such as movement restriction, loud noises, and cold temperatures) were all reported to show significant impairments in their short-term memory capacity [33].

Aging May Contribute to Short-Term Memory Loss

Generally speaking, aging causes the brain to become less efficient over time. Although age-related cognitive impairment is a relatively “normal” consequence of aging, it is nonetheless one of the most common and widespread causes of short-term memory issues in the general population.

Multiple studies have reported that older adults (above the age of 60) tend to perform noticeably worse on both short-term memory and working memory tasks compared to young adults [34, 35, 36].

Additionally, a study with over 55,000 participants reported extremely steep drop-offs in visual working memory that begins to occur after the age of 20, and which continues to worsen as a person’s age increases [37].

According to one animal study in mice, lower serotonin levels (which can accompany old age) were reported to contribute to short-term memory loss [38]. However, further research would be needed to confirm whether serotonin levels have the same effects in humans as well.

How to Potentially Improve Short-Term Memory

In the sections below, we’ll outline some of the medications, medical techniques, dietary compounds and supplements, and other factors that have been reported to possibly have an effect on people’s short-term memory.

However, it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of this scientific research is still in a very early stage, and a lot more research will be needed before any solid conclusions can be made regarding their potential effects on short-term memory in healthy human users.

As such, we are not officially recommending or endorsing any of the specific compounds or techniques described below, as the science behind them is still much too early to come to any firm conclusions.

As always, none of the strategies below should be used to replace conventional medical care. If you believe that you might be experiencing significant difficulties with short-term memory or any other cognitive functions, it is extremely important to talk to your doctor first.

Drugs That May Affect Short-Term Memory

While many drugs can impair short-term memory, some may actually enhance it.

One again, we are not endorsing or recommending any of the compounds listed below — we are presenting this information solely to inform people about some of the latest scientific findings regarding these medications and drugs, and their potential effects. None of the compounds discussed below have been medically approved by the FDA for any cognitive-enhancing application or use.

Caffeine – one of the most widely-used psychoactive drugs in the world – has been reported to enhance working memory in a few preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial (DB-PCT) studies in healthy humans [39, 40, 41].

Interestingly, some early evidence suggests that the effects of caffeine on working memory may be particularly strong for people with extroverted personalities [42, 43].

Nicotine, despite its addictive properties, can temporarily boost short-term memory [44]. Nonetheless, we obviously do not recommend taking up smoking for any reason, as the harmful impacts of tobacco on health far outweigh any potential benefit.

Modafinil has been reported to improve verbal- and short-term memory in one study of 60 healthy young adults (DB-PCT). It also reportedly improved short-term memory in 20 adults with ADHD (DB-RCT), suggesting that it may affect memory abilities in people with or without attention difficulties [45, 46].

According to one study in healthy male volunteers, drugs mimicking vasopressin have been reported to greatly enhance short-term memory [47].

According to one early animal study, Methyl-6-(Phenylethynyl)-Pyridine (MPEP) – an experimental drug that inhibits glutamate – has been reported to increase short-term memory in mouse models of autism [48]. However, this doesn’t mean that it would have a similar effect in humans, and more research would be needed to confirm this.

Experimental Techniques That May Affect Short-Term Memory

Some medical or other experimental techniques have also been investigated for their potential effects on boosting certain cognitive functions, including short-term memory.

However, note that some of these techniques can only be administered by qualified professionals, and are not necessarily available or designed to be used at home. Many of them involve expensive equipment, and may therefore not be practical to use on a casual basis. Always speak to your doctor before trying out any new techniques, as they could have certain risks or the potential for negative side-effects.

Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (TACS) is a technique that involves running low levels of electrical current through the scalp in order to stimulate certain parts of the brain. According to one study, TACS was reported to increase short-term memory capacity in 17 healthy humans [49].

However, TACS is a controversial technique, and it has not been medically approved for any specific medical or other application. It also has not been extensively studied, and little is known about how safe or effective it is in healthy human users – especially in the long term. For this reason, it’s not possible to officially recommend TACS, and caution would be advised for anyone who might be thinking of experimenting with it, as it could come with unpredictable and potentially significant risks of negative side-effects.

Neurofeedback training (NFB) is another modern technology that has been studied for its potential effects on memory and other cognitive processes. In NFB training, people are hooked up to devices that measure and visualize their brain activity in real-time, and are trained to learn how to indirectly control their brain activity with the aim of improving various aspects of health and mental function.

A handful of early studies of multiple types of neurofeedback training have reported that both working memory and short-term memory may potentially be improved in healthy subjects by using NFB training [50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 1].

Similarly, a study specifically in older healthy people reported that working memory and executive function could potentially be improved with neurofeedback training. This finding may suggest that neurofeedback could potentially help reverse memory impairments that happen as a result of aging [55].

Finally, neurofeedback has also been reported to enhance short-term and long-term memory in stroke patients, suggesting that neurofeedback may potentially affect memory abilities in both healthy people and brain injury patients [56].

Nonetheless, much more research will be needed to confirm and extend these initial findings. Due to the lack of sufficient scientific evidence so far, neurofeedback training has not yet been officially approved for any medical or other cognitive-enhancement application.

Supplements That May Affect Short-Term Memory

One of the more popular ways that ordinary, otherwise-healthy people often try to enhance their cognitive functioning is by supplementing with various dietary compounds, and sometimes even by using so-called “nootropic” (or “cognitive-enhancing”) drugs.

While there is some preliminary evidence that certain compounds and supplements may have some effect on memory in healthy human users, much of this research is still in a very early stage, and none of these approaches currently have sufficient evidence to be officially approved for the purpose of cognitive enhancement.

Always speak to your doctor before starting any new supplements, as they could potentially interact with any pre-existing health conditions, other ongoing medications, or other lifestyle and dietary factors.

With that in mind, here’s what the science currently says about a few compounds that may have memory-related effects.

Piracetam, one of the most popular nootropic supplements, has been reported to increase short-term memory in 60 dyslexic children over 12 weeks, at least according to one early study [57].

In another study in patients who underwent cardiac bypass surgery, piracetam was reported to improve attention and verbal and nonverbal short-term memory [58]. However, since this finding came from patients with a specific medical condition, it’s not certain whether healthy users would experience similar effects to these, and more research will be needed to find out for sure.

According to one study in 60 healthy elderly adults, curcumin was reported to significantly enhance working memory after consistent use over a 4-week period [59].

Finally, in one animal study, a supplement that contained phosphatidylserine, Ginkgo biloba, vitamin E, and pyridoxine was reported to enhance short-term memory in elderly dogs [60]. However, since this was only reported in animals, it’s not possible to conclude for sure whether similar effects would also be seen in human users.

Lifestyle Factors and Activities that May Affect Short-Term Memory

In addition to taking supplements, there are also a variety of lifestyle factors that have been associated with differences in peoples’ short-term memory abilities, according to some early research.

For example, playing action video games has been associated with increased visual short-term memory, at least according to one preliminary study [61]. Similarly, one other study in young male adults reported that playing action video games may be associated with enhanced transfer of visual information into visual short-term memory [62].

According to one preliminary study, performing cognitive training (such as working memory training) may enhance visual short-term memory in some users [63].

Other forms of “brain training” have also been reported to potentially improve working memory and other cognitive functions in some users [64, 65].

However, the concept of “brain training” is still controversial, and not all scientists agree that it actually has significant effects in the long term. More research will be needed to know for sure – but, on the plus side, these training programs are safe and relatively widely available, so they could be a relatively easy strategy to test out for yourself.

For seniors, keeping your brain stimulated, such as by doing crossword puzzles, could also potentially help with working memory [66]. Maintaining a habit of keeping cognitive stimulated is believed to be one of the main lifestyle factors that may help protect against age-related cognitive decline in general.

Finally, short meditation sessions have been reported to potentially help enhance working memory [67].

Mental Techniques for Improving Short-Term Memory

Using certain memorization strategies (“mnemonic devices”), such as mental imagery, may help boost short-term and working memory in both young and older adults. Mental imagery refers to creating an image in your mind for a word or concept that you are trying to remember [68].

Other examples of helpful mnemonic devices could include using acronyms or rhyming words to remember important details, or associating new information with unique personal memories.

“Chunking” is another useful mental strategy that can increase the storage of short-term memory. This refers to combining separate pieces of information together into a meaningful group. For example, the numbers 1, 7, 7, 6, 1, 8, 1, and 2 might be more easily recalled if “chunked” into the years 1776 and 1812 [69].

Limitations and Caveats

It is important to remember that although some substances and procedures have worked to help with memory in certain situations, your personal experience may not be the same. Some studies have only looked at animal models or specific conditions, and there are many different factors that are involved in short-term memory.

About the Author

Puya Yazdi

Puya Yazdi

MD
Dr. Puya Yazdi is a physician-scientist with 14+ years of experience in clinical medicine, life sciences, biotechnology, and nutraceuticals.
As a physician-scientist with expertise in genomics, biotechnology, and nutraceuticals, he has made it his mission to bring precision medicine to the bedside and help transform healthcare in the 21st century.He received his undergraduate education at the University of California at Irvine, a Medical Doctorate from the University of Southern California, and was a Resident Physician at Stanford University. He then proceeded to serve as a Clinical Fellow of The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine at The University of California at Irvine, where he conducted research of stem cells, epigenetics, and genomics. He was also a Medical Director for Cyvex Nutrition before serving as president of Systomic Health, a biotechnology consulting agency, where he served as an expert on genomics and other high-throughput technologies. His previous clients include Allergan, Caladrius Biosciences, and Omega Protein. He has a history of peer-reviewed publications, intellectual property discoveries (patents, etc.), clinical trial design, and a thorough knowledge of the regulatory landscape in biotechnology.He is leading our entire scientific and medical team in order to ensure accuracy and scientific validity of our content and products.

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