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The Memory Thief

The Memory Thief and the Secrets Behind How We Remember

Lauren Aguirre
Pegasus Books
2021
336 pp.
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Mysterious illnesses can serve as starting points for both medical science and popular science writing. They can lead physicians and scientists to identify previously unknown syndromes, better understand the body’s functioning, and ultimately improve the prevention and treatment of diseases. For science writers, such cases supply scaffolding for narrative, allow easy integration of human interest, and offer chances to portray not only the products but also the process of science. Such cases are at the core of The Memory Thief and the Secrets Behind How We Remember by science journalist Lauren Aguirre.

Early in the book, a young neurologist named Jed Barash views an MRI scan of the brain of a patient acting strangely after a drug overdose. Barash is taken aback: The patient’s hippocampus—crucial to memory—is severely damaged, but the rest of his brain is intact. Upon examination, the patient shows profound memory difficulty, akin to the deficits seen in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Barash embarks on a search for other such cases, leading to the identification of what is now called opioid-associated amnestic syndrome. Along the way, he enlists other physicians and researchers to try to gain a sense of how common this syndrome might be, how it arises, what it might imply more broadly about the effects of opiate use, and whether it might offer insights into other memory impairments.

Threaded throughout this narrative are accounts of well-known cases in which surgical injury or viral infection ravaged an individual’s hippocampus, resulting in permanent memory impairment, descriptions of rodent studies that have helped researchers identify the roles of hippocampal neurons in memory formation, and more information about the effects of opioids on memory. Aguirre also discusses the possible origins of Alzheimer’s disease as well as factors that contribute to healthy aging of the human brain.

Aguirre also recounts the story of Owen Rivers, a bright young man who has been all but unable to form new memories since overdosing on fentanyl in 2018. The book’s prologue tells Rivers’s story from shortly before to shortly after the overdose, and segments interspersed throughout the main text trace his history and follow his experiences and reflections since the incident. The epilogue includes an engaging essay in which Rivers presents his own perspective on his memory loss, offering readers a firsthand account of the experience. “Without Calendar notifications, task organization apps (huge shoutout to Trello), alarms, and meticulous preplanning each day, navigating everyday life on my own would be unfeasible,” he writes.

The Memory Thief is extensively researched, and Aguirre writes clearly, concisely, and often cinematically. Some of the book’s denser sections might bog down nonscientists, while experts might lose patience with some of the more informal storytelling. However, the book ultimately succeeds in providing an accessible yet substantive look at memory science and offering glimpses of the often-challenging process of biomedical investigation.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences and the Department of Humanities in Medicine, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA.