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Amnesia After Sex? A Medical Possibility

If President Clinton had known what a pair of Johns Hopkins doctors recently learned from two patients with a temporary form of amnesia, charges that he lied about sex might be moot.

Chi Van Dang, M.D., Ph.D., and Lawrence B. Gardner, M.D., hematologists, found that bearing down hard the way some people do when they move their bowels, deliver a baby or have sexual intercourse can produce six to 12 hours of transient global amnesia—the inability to form new memories.

In the October issue of The Lancet, the Hopkins team reports global amnesia in two men, ages 72 and 75, whose wives took them to the hospital half an hour or so after sex when the men became seriously confused although remaining fully conscious. In one case, the patient thought he’d had a stroke.

Instead, according to Dang and Gardner, the “bearing down”—also known in medicine as a Valsalva maneuver—along with the typical activation of the sympathetic nervous system during sex, created intense pressure in the brain’s blood vessels, resulting in temporary lack of blood flow to the central part of the brain. This, in turn, resulted in amnesia.

“Interestingly,” Dang quipped, “this form of amnesia results in a complete inability to recall what happened during the period of confusion. As with our patients, who could not recall the name of the current U.S. President, a presidential Valsalva maneuver may have legally allowed him not to recall specific events.” The problem is real, if rare, Dang says. “The triggering event was not identified. I sort of uncovered it by just careful history taking—being nosey.”

—Karen Infeld