It’s hard to imagine that something a common as a simple cold sore (herpes simplex) virus could become life-changing, but that’s exactly what happened to Clive Wearing in 1985.

What was once a promising music career ended abruptly in what was reported to be the most extreme case of amnesia ever recorded. “Clive’s memory is a mere seven seconds long,” says his wife Deborah, “Any new information given to him melts as fast as snowflakes on the skin.” The herpes simplex virus had “traveled to his brain and wiped out his entire memory center, including the hippocampus and areas that control emotion and behavior.” The virus had turned into encephalitis in this form, and it affects approximately 2,000 Americans a year. Seventy percent of the patients who contact this die, and more than half of the survivors are left with some form of brain damage – although not as devastating as Clive’s.

Clive was 40 years old, had just been married to Deborah for a short 18 months, and was a rising star in the music industry in England. He was the choirmaster of the famed London Sinfonietta; director of the London Lassus Ensemble; and one of the leading Renaissance music scholars in the world. He had worked with such outstanding composers as Michael Nyman and Ringo Starr, and his leather-bound program of Renaissance music created for the BBC for Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding was presented to the Princess at Buckingham Palace.

He often worked seven days a week, and it wasn’t unusual for his to work until midnight or later. “He came home one night complaining of a headache,” said Deborah. “It was nothing remarkable,” but the next day the headache was so severe he told her it was like “someone was beating me with a hammer.” His teeth were chattering and so Deborah told him to stay in bed and call her at work if he needed anything. He said to her, “I can’t remember your number,” even though he had called it every day there. Their doctor diagnosed the flu, and prescribed a painkiller for the headache.

Two days later Clive looked at Deborah and told her he didn’t remember her name. Panicking, she called the doctor again who told her there was an outbreak of influenza that mimicked meningitis, and that was the cause of Clive’s confusion. After more confusion, Clive wandering off and not remembering his address, and a phone call from the police, Deborah took him to the hospital. A CAT scan and a spinal tap showed encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain caused by the cold sore virus.

A stunned Deborah told the doctors Clive had never even had a cold sore. According to the doctors, “The virus lies formant in most of the population without symptoms, very, very rarely it goes to the brain.” They diagnosed his as terminal.

The damage to his frontal lobe, the part that plays a role in behavior and personality, was the most effected. He still had his authoritative voice, but when asked to identify objects like pens or a tie he would say, “a chicken.” His behavior would sometimes become violent, and at other times childlike.

One day Deborah took Clive to the chapel and sat him down in front of the organ. He could no longer read or write a book, but it seemed he could read music. “Music is part of Clive’s procedural memory, like walking or riding a bike,” explains New York neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of the book Awakenings. “While he was playing music he seemed normal,” says Deborah. “The moment he stopped he became lost again.”

As stated before, this was an extreme case of amnesia, but it does bring up some questions that doctors still are not able to answer. How is it that when the memory is erased there are still areas that can be brought back – like his music? Every day Clive repeats the same sentence over and over again, day after day. He still could look into Deborah’s eyes and tell her he loved her, yet couldn’t remember her name. How many parts of the brain are involved in memory? The greatest neurologists in the world are still exploring these answers, and they still are finding new discoveries that make them rethink previous studies.

The brain is indeed a complicated piece of work, yet this story makes me very sad.

From the desk of Ron White


Reader’s Digest – Forget Me Not, pg. 26, June 2006 edition