FEATURE ‌ Better Off Not Knowing 

How amnesia works, and doesn't

It's a good thing the Post and Courier is covering the legal turmoil centered on Charleston Southern University professor Al Parish and the millions of dollars of other people's money he can't seem to find. It's good because Parish can't seem to remember a thing and needs all the help he can get.

In court last week, the FBI noted that Parish claimed he couldn't remember his birthday, address, Social Security number, or where Columbia was, let alone the location of the money, ranging from $134 million to more than half a billion, that he allegedly took from friends, coworkers, and other investors, who hold out little hope they'll see that money again.

"I've been doing this for some time and this is a first," says Bill Hicks, regional trial counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC isn't taking a position on Parish's condition, but Hicks said it would facilitate tracking down assets if he recovered his memory.

Fortunately for Parish, he's not alone in claiming amnesia in the face of legal wrangling. Unfortunately for Parish, having memory loss to the extent that he is claiming is very rare and is typically tethered to either a psychological breakdown or fakery, another potential example of his dishonesty.

Dr. David Bachman, professor of neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina and the director of the neurology division, says that psychological amnesia can be triggered by some serious trauma, like a sexual assault, blocking out portions of the past. But when the amnesia stretches far back into the person's early life, it suggests either severe psychological problems or deceit.

"The longer the amnesia, the harder it is to make a legitimate claim," he says.

Though the media has suggested that Parish was treated at MUSC for amnesia, Bachman says that he has not seen or treated Parish and is unfamiliar with his particular case, but that defendants in prickly court cases have passed through his doors in the past.

"You look for that secondary motive (for the amnesia)," he says. "If you have someone in a legal pickle, you're going to have to ask some more questions."

What Was I Saying?

The first thing the hospital will do when faced with an apparent amnesiac is determine what type of memory loss the patient has, Bachman says.

More common cases involve a brain-based cause like a blow to the head, seizure, stroke, or Alzheimer's. For example, a football player takes a hard hit on the head and gets pulled from the game. Later, he may not remember the second half of the game. Most amnesia cases involve this limited memory loss consisting of hours or days instead of months and years. Amnesia can also be triggered by acute stress, like an automobile accident, even without a head injury, and can also be triggered by particular drugs.

Most tests to determine fakery involve providing the person with something to remember — pictures, numbers, words, or simply a coin in a hand — and then testing them shortly after. Bachman says his patients are typically given a few words to remember and then after three or four minutes, they're asked to give those words back.

"If you give them new information and they can't remember that information, that's more suggestive of a brain-based amnesia," Bachman says.

Doctors frequently look for specific patterns of memory loss to determine the cause. Often, more extensive neuropsychological testing is necessary. In addition, other tests such as brain wave tests or MRI or CT scans may be useuful.

Once the neurological explanations are disposed of, it's difficult to determine whether the person has had a true psychological break or if they're lying. Doctors will first look for the circumstances that would warrant forgetfulness.

If it appears there is a reason for the person to lie about amnesia, the doctor will continue to press the patient with questions, hoping that the answers will begin to seep out, or that the fakes will slip up.

Once confronted with the ruse, a patient may fess up to fibbing, but some look for another way out, Bachman says.

"They won't necessarily come clean," he says. "They may come up with a new story about what happened."

The story du jour these days seems to be that they were under the influence of alcohol and are quickly ushered off to rehab.

If the amnesia defense doesn't take, Parish won't have the option of a swanky treatment facility. The courts have jailed him as a flight risk, apparently suggesting that, even though he can't find Columbia, he could still find Charleston International Airport.


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