A man’s motorcycle accident and resulting head injury changed the way doctors understand memory loss

Kent Cochrane (KC) changed the way doctors think about memory loss after he survived a motorcycle accident in 1981. He died this year at the age of 62, but his ability to retain factual information following his injuries made a lasting impact on the understanding of how our brains remember things. Shayna Rosenbaum, a principal […]

Kent Cochrane (KC) changed the way doctors think about memory loss after he survived a motorcycle accident in 1981. He died this year at the age of 62, but his ability to retain factual information following his injuries made a lasting impact on the understanding of how our brains remember things.

Shayna Rosenbaum, a principal investigator at the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Toronto’s York University, worked directly with KC, and she talked to NPR host Arun Rath about this unique case. She explained how the memory areas of our brains work and respond to injury:

“Well, the structure of the brain, the hippocampus, which is responsible for forming new memories and for retaining old ones is vulnerable to a wide range of neurological conditions, including not only head injury, but also Alzheimer’s disease, encephalitis, epilepsy. So many people, unfortunately, suffer from certain forms of memory loss. But what we’ve learned is that not all forms of memory are affected, so memory is not just one thing. And we’ve learned from cases like KC that patients can, in fact, rely on the types of memories that are spared, such as memory for facts about the world and about oneself in order to compensate for those aspects that are impaired.”

Despite KC’s injuries, Rosenbaum explained that he did have an understanding of how the research about his case was significant and potentially very helpful for the future of this area of study.

“When we drew his attention to the many contributions that he had made to our understanding of memory, he himself was blown away. He would often show amazement when we would show him a newspaper article that was written about him. And when we explained how we now understand that memory is not one thing based on studies involving him, he really did seem to appreciate the types of contributions that this made to our understanding of memory.”