Amnesia, Opioids and Why We Forget

Listen 49:32
A rendering of a brain breaking apart into small pieces

(AlexLMX/Big Stock)

In 2018, Owen Rivers woke up in a hospital bed after a fentanyl overdose — and could no longer form new memories. It was a terrifying experience; he’d ask the same questions over and over — why he was there and what had happened to him — only to forget the answers.
As it turns out, his case is part of a larger medical mystery surrounding a type of amnesia that appears to be related to opioid overdoses.

On this episode, we’ll hear Owen’s story and explore what scientists are finding out about the connection between overdoses and amnesia — along with what all of this means for other people suffering from memory loss. Science journalist Lauren Aguirre captured this scientific puzzle in her book “The Memory Thief: And the Secrets Behind How We Remember — A Medical Mystery” and she joins us to discuss what she’s learned.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Early childhood experiences play a formative role in who we become — or do they? Thanks to a phenomenon called childhood amnesia, most people are unable to remember anything from before the age of three or four. So do those forgotten memories actually matter? Reporter Jad Sleiman explores that question along with what scientists think is behind childhood amnesia.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal