strange cases

The Man Who Lost His Memory at the Dentist

Photo: Andy Sotiriou/Getty Images

One morning in March of 2005, William, a British soldier stationed in Germany, woke up and headed to the dentist for a root canal. Ten years have passed, and yet upon waking every morning since that day, William still believes it’s March of 2005, that he is a British soldier stationed in Germany, and that he will soon be headed to the dentist for a root canal. 

Something, in other words, happened between the time the surgery began and the time it ended — something that has prevented him from forming any long-term memories since the day of his dental surgery. When he forms new memories, they now only last about 90 minutes, according to the case report his medical team recently published in the journal Neurocase

The Patient: William was a member of the British Armed Forces, who at 22 married his wife, Samantha, according to the BBC, though writer David Robson notes that he changed both names to protect the couple’s privacy. They have two children, who are now 21 and 18. On a Monday morning in March of 2005, he woke up, went to the gym, stopped in at his office to take care of some emails, and went to the dentist. “I remember getting into the chair and the dentist inserting the local anaesthetic,” William told Robson. It’s the last thing he remembers. 

The Problem: After the surgery, William was pale, and his eyes were “vacant” and unfocused, his physicians write in the case report. When he hadn’t improved by 5 p.m., he was taken to the hospital, where he stayed for three days. There, it became clear that he’d somehow lost his ability to form long-term memories; it was like his brain rebooted every ten minutes. While in the hospital, his memory improved a bit, so that he had a “90-minute span of awareness,” but it has not improved in the ten years that have passed since then. “He wakes up believing that he should still be in the military, stationed abroad,” the case report authors write. “Every day he thinks it is the day of the dental appointment. 

Like something out of Memento, his wife has entered a guide to his present life in the notes section of his smartphone, titled “First thing — read this.” There, he learns every day what happened to him that day at the dentist, and that his children have now grown into young adults. 

The Diagnosis: William’s symptoms would suggest that he has anterograde amnesia, an inability to create new long-term memories, while memories formed before a brain injury are accessible as normal. The cause of injury is a mystery. Imaging scans show no damage to the regions of the brain typically associated with this type of memory loss. Another possibility: Sometimes anterograde amnesia happens after psychological trauma. But William’s wife and doctors don’t think this quite fits his case, either, as he showed no signs of emotional problems before his memory loss.

Dr. Gerald H. Burgess, a clinical psychologist at the University of Leicester and one of the co-authors of the case report, does have a theory, outlined in the BBC write-up of the case: 

Once we have experienced an event, the memories are slowly cemented in the long term by altering these richly woven networks. That process of “consolidation” involves the production of new proteins to rebuild the synapses in their new shape; without it, the memory remains fragile and is easily eroded with time. Block that protein synthesis in rats, and they soon forget anything they have just learnt. Crucially, 90 minutes would be about the right time for this consolidation to take place – just as William starts to forget the details of the event. Rather than losing its printing press, like Molaison, William’s brain seems to have simply run out of ink.

Burgess hopes that after the publication of the case report, he’ll hear from other psychiatrists and neurologists who have seen similar cases, which could eventually help William. Unless that happens, William may live the rest of his life with a memory that erases itself every 90 minutes. 

The Man Who Lost His Memory at the Dentist