Short Term Memory Loss


Short term memory is your ability to store small amounts of new information for a limited amount of time. A good example is a phone number. You meet someone new, and they give you their name and phone number. The average person will remember the phone number correctly for 18 seconds. Repeating the number to yourself will add another 20 seconds of memory, so if you silently repeat it over and over, you can retain it until you can enter it in your contacts.

If you become distracted by conversation, or something interrupts this repetition process, you may be unable to recall the phone number correctly. Neurological problems repeatedly interfere with this repetition process in two ways.

In 1956, George Miller  observed the span of a healthy person’s immediate memory and absolute judgment was limited. This theory, known as Miller’s Law, states the capacity of an average person’s short-term working memory is 7 (±2) objects, and lasts only for a short time. This means that when given a list of items, most people will be able to remember 5-9 of those items, the average being 7.¹

Short term memory problems have both an organic and psychological root in Superficial Siderosis patients. Since personality and mood disorders, such as increased irritability, anxiety, and depression, are experienced with cerebellar degeneration,² neuropsychologists strongly feel the stress from depression compounds memory problems. A person suffering from depression often has trouble initiating tasks, making decisions, planning future actions, or organizing thoughts, so the ability to complete the repetition process needed to retain new information is severely affected or, in some cases, nonexistent.

Studies have also shown that cortisol contributes to memory loss, especially short-term memory loss, because of the harm it does to brain cells. Cortisol will be released into your system during times of stress, which is why those with severe anxiety are at high risk of developing memory loss problems.³

Stress hormones are one mechanism that we believe leads to weathering of the brain. Like a rock on the shoreline, after years and years it will eventually break down and disappear.” -Jason Radley³, assistant professor psychology, UI

Superficial Siderosis patients suffering Short term memory problems are encouraged to use written reminders, phone alarms (for medication and appointments), and auditory/visual reminders when starting household tasks (cooking) to help complete tasks. Concentration games and self-repetition exercises may help retrain your brain to retain information. Seeking help for anxiety or depression could not only help reduce or control hormonal issues but may positively affect your general wellbeing.


Updated November 7, 2018

Sources: Superficial siderosis is a rare neurologic disease characterized by progressive sensorineural hearing loss, cerebellar ataxia, pyramidal signs, and neuroimaging findings revealing hemosiderin deposits in the spinal and cranial leptomeninges and subpial layer. The disease progresses slowly, and patients may present with mild cognitive impairment, nystagmus, dysmetria, spasticity, dysdiadochokinesia, dysarthria, hyperreflexia, and Babinski signs. Additional features reported include dementia, urinary incontinence, anosmia, ageusia, and anisocoria. Superficial siderosis MedGen UID: 831707 •Concept ID: CN226971 •Finding Orphanet: ORPHA247245
¹Baddeley, A., Eysenck, M. W. & Anderson, M. C. (2010). Memory. Psychology Press: New York.
³Adrenocortical Status Predicts the Degree of Age-Related Deficits in Prefrontal Structural Plasticity and Working Memory
Rachel M. Anderson, Andrew K. Birnie, Norah K. Koblesky, Sara A. Romig-Martin, and Jason J. Radley
Journal of Neuroscience June 18, 2014, 34 (25) 8387-8397; DOI:
E Cooper, Freya & Grube, Manon & Von Kriegstein, Katharina & Kumar, Sukhbinder & English, Philip & P Kelly, Thomas & F Chinnery, Patrick & Griffiths, Timothy. (2011). Distinct critical cerebellar subregions for components of verbal working memory. Neuropsychologia. 50. 189-97. 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.11.017. A role for the cerebellum in cognition has been proposed based on studies suggesting a profile of cognitive deficits due to cerebellar stroke. Such studies are limited in the determination of the detailed organization of cerebellar subregions that are critical for different aspects of cognition. In this study, we examined the correlation between cognitive performance and cerebellar integrity in a specific degeneration of the cerebellar cortex: Spinocerebellar Ataxia type 6 (SCA6). The results demonstrate a critical relationship between verbal working memory and grey matter density in superior (bilateral lobules VI and crus I of lobule VII) and inferior (bilateral lobules VIIIa and VIIIb, and right lobule IX) parts of the cerebellum. We demonstrate that distinct cerebellar regions subserve different components of the prevalent psychological model for verbal working memory based on a phonological loop. The work confirms the involvement of the cerebellum in verbal working memory and defines specific subsystems for this within the cerebellum.
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