The remarkable true story of a team of doctors who – through years of scientific sleuthing and observant care—discover a surprising connection between opioids and memory, one that holds promise and peril for any one of us.
How could you lose your memory overnight, and what would it mean? The day neurologist Jed Barash sees the baffling brain scan of a young patient with devastating amnesia marks the beginning of a quest to answer those questions. First detected in a cluster of stigmatized opioid overdose victims in Massachusetts with severe damage to the hippocampus—the brain’s memory center—this rare syndrome reveals how the tragic plight of the unfortunate few can open the door to advances in medical science.
After overcoming initial skepticism that investigating the syndrome is worth the effort—and that fentanyl is the likely culprit—Barash and a growing team of dedicated doctors explore the threat that people who take opioids chronically as prescribed to treat severe pain may gradually put their memories at risk. At the same time, they begin to grasp the potential for this syndrome to shed light on the most elusive memory thief of all—Alzheimer’s disease.
Through the prism of this fascinating story, Aguirre goes on to examine how researchers tease out the fundamental nature of memory and the many mysteries still to be solved. Where do memories live? Why do we forget most of what happens in a day but remember some events with stunning clarity years later? How real are our memories? And what purpose do they actually serve?
Perhaps the greatest mystery in The Memory Thief is why Alzheimer’s has evaded capture for a century even though it afflicts tens of millions around the world and lies in wait for millions more. Aguirre deftly explores this question and reveals promising new strategies and developments that may finally break the long stalemate in the fight against this dreaded disease.
But at its core, Aguirre’s genre-bending and deeply-reported book is about paying attention to the things that initially don’t make sense—like the amnestic syndrome—and how these mysteries can move science closer to an ever-evolving version of the truth.
Lauren Aguirre is an award-winning science journalist with experience in multiple formats; documentaries, podcasts, short-form video series, interactive games, and blogs. She built her career at the PBS series NOVA after graduating from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Aguirre’s reporting on memory has appeared in The Atlantic, Undark Magazine, and the Boston Globe’s STAT News. This is her first book.
The research and writing of this book was supported in part by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology.
Publisher: Pegasus Books (July 1, 2021)
Length: 336 pages
"The Memory Thief moves with the roller-coaster speed of a first-rate suspense novel while simultaneously offering a deeply compassionate and insightful look at our understanding of what makes and what breaks human memory. Kudos to Lauren Aguirre for a remarkable book."
– Deborah Blum, best-selling author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
“Lauren Aguirre has crafted an intimate tale of sweeping importance, one that travels the mysterious pathways of the mind. This is a story of human frailty, heroic perseverance and, ultimately, hope. She gained the trust of all involved—the dogged researchers and the patients grasping at their fading memories. The result is a deeply reported, remarkable narrative.”
– David Baron, author of AMERICAN ECLIPSE and THE BEAST IN THE GARDEN
"The Memory Thief presents a frightening insight into the lives of the victims of sudden and debilitating memory loss. By intertwining their stories with those of the doctors and scientists trying to help them, Aguirre exposes the difficulties of researching radical ideas in a vastly complex medical world. Emerging from the stories is an engrossing overview of how memory works, and fails, offering invaluable lessons about what we can do to protect our own memories."
– Lynne Kelly, author of THE MEMORY CODE and MEMORY CRAFT
"Truly a masterful synthesis of a large and diverse body of research and clinical lore. Aguirre beautifully brings to life the people behind the research in this excellent and compelling story of medical discovery. I greatly enjoyed reading The Memory Thief."
– Bradford C. Dickerson, director of the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital
"An engaging, suspenseful portrait of medical sleuthing that uncovered secrets about how drugs of abuse can damage memory. It is historically rich and will be of interest to those who study the politics of, and barriers to, scientific advancement. It is a delightful and informative read."
– Marc J. Kaufman, director of McLean Hospital’s Translational Neuroimaging Laboratory
"Aguirre has a knack for explaining science in accessible detail. The blend of science and deeply felt humanity will leave readers thinking about this one long after they finish."
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