Loni Sue Johnson with Severe Memory Loss
Whenever I hear about cases of dramatic amnesia, it breaks my heart. And that was certainly the case when I read an article about Lonni Sue Johnson, a once-talented artist and musician, whose story was told by The Star-Ledger of Newark Sunday.
Johnson, now 62, came down with infectious encephalitis in December 2007, and has never been the same since then. The disease “shredded” her mind, as The Ledger put it. By New Year’s 2008, the virus had damaged her brain’s temporal lobes and its hippocampus, “the tiny sea-horse-shaped structure responsible for nearly all our memories,” The Ledger wrote.
The end result was this: Johnson had retrograde amnesia, meaning she can’t remember the past, and anterograde amnesia, meaning she doesn’t have any new memories. That means this talented Princeton woman, who did illustrations for children’s books and newspapers such as The New York Times, can’t remember people or her past or even objects and activities, such as how to brush her teeth, The Ledger reported.
Beyond losing her past, Johnson basically can’t remember anything new. The Ledger reporter wrote about how she was introduced to Johnson, who said, “Hi, how are you? Thank you for coming.”
Johnson then left the room to use the bathroom, and when she came she once again told the reporter, “Hi, how are you? Thank you for coming.”
Johnson does remember who her mother and sister are, and they are her caretakers now, according to The Ledger. Johnson is back to doing some drawing, and she is always happy, a pleasant side effect of her illness.
Scientists with the cognitive science department of Johns Hopkins are studying Johnson, obviously with her family’s permission. In fact, those researchers will present a paper on Johnson at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting next month.
It is heartbreaking to read Johnson’s answers to some very basic questions, as reported by The Ledger. When asked who wrote “Hamlet,” Johnson answers Albert Einstein. Asked who Madame Curie was, Johnson responds, “Did she walk on he moon?”
Yet sometimes Johnson surprises her family and researchers when something in her mind clicks and she actually does remember something, like when she started humming a Beatles song.
Most of all, cases such as Johnson’s illustrate the complexities of the brain, and how much we still have to learn about the way it works.