64-year-old loses lifetime of memories, but recalls special skills

WASHINGTON — Lonnie Sue Johnson was an accomplished woman with many talents. She was an artist, a musician and a pilot. Then one day, she lost it all.

Or did she?

In 2007, Johnson, a former illustrator for The New Yorker and other publications, came down with viral encephalitis. The infection destroyed her hippocampus — the portion of the brain used to form new memories and retrieve old ones.

Johnson, 64, remembers nothing of her former life. However, she did retain very specific knowledge about how to perform skills she once excelled at. Now the New Jersey native is giving Maryland researchers new insights into the way the brain processes memory by offering them access to her totally transformed world.

Barbara Landau, a professor of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University, learned about Johnson’s story from a family member, and enlisted her colleague, Michael McCloskey, to help study Johnson’s case.

In their videotaped interviews, Johnson can’t recall details of her personal life — her mother helps her fill in the blanks. She also has no grasp of the knowledge she once learned in school.

For example, Johnson, an art major, didn’t recognize a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, but she could describe in detail how to create clouds in a watercolor.

Despite having been an accomplished violist who played in orchestras, Johnson didn’t recognize Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5,” but she could explain how to handle a viola.

“It is such a striking contrast,” McCloskey said on Johnson’s ability to remember how a skill is done, even if she doesn’t remember having done that skill in her lifetime.

“It looks like general knowledge is not just one big thing that gets all spared or all gets damaged — it looks like there are important subdivisions.”

In other words, general knowledge about one’s skills — knowing how to do something — may be different from all other kinds of general knowledge.

McCloskey says the more researchers looked at Johnson’s case, the more they realized that there may be various subcategories of memory that are stored differently in the brain. If that holds true, one type could get damaged, while another might survive.

“We hope that the kinds of things we are studying with [Johnson] will be able to shed light on other kinds of memory problems,” McCloskey said, who added that their findings, published in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychology, could help researchers uncover some of the mysteries of Alzheimer’s’ Disease.

Johnson’s case may also help scientists come up with to new ways to help the rest of the general population remember better.

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