The Woman With No Memory

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Lonni Sue Johnson, 63, is an artist suffering profound amnesia after a nearly fatal battle with encephalitis in 2007.  The disease destroyed her hippocampus, wiping out most of her old memories, as well as her brain’s ability to form new ones. “She lives in a narrow sliver of the present moment,” explains her sister, Aline Johnson, “and the moments from before just fade away.”

Michael Lemonick writes in his TIME Magazine profile of her strange case:

When you first meet Lonni Sue Johnson, it takes a few moments to realize that something isn’t quite right. “Hello!” she says brightly, looking up in surprise, with an expression of pure delight on her face. “Would you like to see my drawings?” Her glee seems strangely childlike for a woman in her early 60’s; she’s just a little happier to see you than feels appropriate, given that you’re a complete stranger.

That was exactly my experience when I spent a few days this summer filming with Johnson.  She was always upbeat and warm, greeting me like an old friend. Often she would repeat a host of questions she had asked me only moments before.  And each time, I’d answer her queries anew or greet her again and again all within the same few moments. Still, her energy and spirit remained buoyant and her mind remained alert and curious. And even with her overwhelming impairment, she continues to produce her art. It’s different from what she created before she fell ill, but it’s art all the same. All of this is a mystery for researchers, and all of this makes Lonni Sue Johnson one one of the most important figures in memory research today.

In the video below, Johnson and her family try to cope, persevere and do what they can to contribute to science.

Below watch a Princeton neuroscientist explain why fMRI studies of Lonni Sue may uncover new discoveries about the brain.

In the clip below, Johns Hopkins cognitive scientist Michael McCloskey tests the limits of Lonni Sue’s memory of 9/11.