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Memory difficulties and brain tumours

Not everyone with a brain tumour will experience memory difficulties, and for those that do, the symptoms and severity will differ. Learn more about how brain tumours can affect memory and read top tips to help cope with memory loss.

What is memory?

Memory is our ability to take in and store information, as well as to recall that information at a later time. Memory is one of our cognitive (thinking) functions.

There are various types or aspects of memory, but it can be split broadly into two types:

Short-term memory

This is when we remember things from a few seconds ago, such as the name of a person we just met. Short-term memory lasts for approximately 20 seconds. A short-term memory can be forgotten after those few seconds or can be converted into long-term memory, depending on its importance and the circumstances.

Part of short-term memory is your working memory. You use this to store information on a temporary, short-term basis, such as when you need to remember numbers to do a sum in your head.

Long-term memory

This allows us to recall information from the past, whether it's a minute ago, a year ago or many decades ago.

Long-term memory can be divided into different sub-types:

  • Procedural memory - Remembering how to carry out processes and activities, such as swimming, driving and riding a bike.
  • Semantic memory - Being able to describe and give meaning to our world. This involves the language we use and all the concepts associated with it, for example, naming a city or describing what a cat is.
  • Episodic memory - Remembering specific events and experiences you have lived through, such as what happened at a relative's birthday.
  • Prospective memory - Remembering appointments or events that will happen in the future.

How can my brain tumour affect my memory?

There are 3 stages in remembering:

  • getting information into memory (encoding)
  • keeping the information in memory (storing)
  • getting the information back out again when you need it (retrieving or recalling).

Brain tumours could cause difficulties with one or more of these stages.

Not everyone with a brain tumour will experience memory difficulties. If you do, how you are affected will mainly depend on:

  • where your tumour is in the brain (location)
  • the treatment you have.

The severity and type of memory difficulties differ from person to person, so you may not have the same problems as someone with a tumour in the same location and having the same treatment.

Effect of brain tumour location on memory

Many areas of the brain are involved in storing and recalling different types of memories. For this reason, it's not always possible to accurately predict if and how a person's memory will be affected by a brain tumour. However, two areas of the brain are particularly involved in memory – the frontal lobe and the temporal lobe. If your tumour is in these areas of the brain, it's more likely (but not definite) that your memory will be affected.

Effect of treatment

Neurosurgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can all have an effect on the brain that may, in turn, affect memory. Again, the effects of treatment will vary from person to person.

Surgery on the brain can cause some temporary swelling, which may affect cognition in general, including your memory.

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy may also affect cognition and energy levels in general. Side-effects caused by these treatments could last for weeks, sometimes even months, after treatment has ended.

What sort of memory difficulties might I experience?

Memory difficulties are sometimes referred to as amnesia. The types of amnesia you may experience are:

  • Loss of memories formed before you had a brain tumour or treatment (retrograde amnesia).
  • Difficulty remembering memories formed after you had a brain tumour or treatment (anterograde amnesia).

Get support

If you need someone to talk to or advice on where to get help, our Support and Information team is available by phone, email or live-chat.

Living with memory loss

Jennifer's shares her experience of memory difficulties after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.

If you have further questions, need to clarify any of the information on this page, or want to find out more about research and clinical trials, please contact our team:

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