Trapped in a real-life ‘Groundhog Day’?

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published January 31, 2018

Key Takeaways

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” —Phil Connors (Bill Murray), “Groundhog Day.”

In the movie, “Groundhog Day,” one of the most familiar films of the past three decades, the main character is somehow caught in a time loop, forced to relive the same day over and over again. But, in reality, can this actually happen?

According to some experts, yes, it can.

Researchers at the University of Leicester, Leicester, UK, published the unusual case of a man who suffered from profound anterograde amnesia after receiving a routine anesthetic and undergoing a standard root canal procedure. Since then, this otherwise healthy 38-year-old man has been left with a 90-minute memory. For the past 13 years, he can only remember up to 90 minutes, and awakes everyday thinking it’s the same day he went to the dentist.

No evidence, however, links the amnesia to the treatment at the dentist.

“One of our reasons for writing up this individual’s case was that we had never seen anything like this before in our assessment clinics, and we do not know what to make of it, but felt an honest reporting of the facts as we assessed them was warranted, that perhaps there will be other cases, or people who know more than we do about what might have caused the patient’s amnesia,” said Dr. Gerald Burgess, School of Psychology, University of Leicester.

“Our experience was that none of our colleagues in neurology, psychiatry, and clinical neuropsychology could explain this case, or had seen anything like it themselves before,” he added.

The patient remains fully aware of his identity, and manifests no personality changes. Since this happened, he manages his life with an electronic diary and access to prompts.

“I don’t think that at this point the dental anesthetic or root canal can be blamed; it would be unethical and perhaps baseless scaremongering to do so, there is not sufficient evidence. I feel the story lies elsewhere, but that the preceding incident needed to be documented and not ignored,” said Dr. Burgess.

Dr. Burgess and his co-author Bhanu Chadalavada, consultant psychiatrist, Northamptonshire Healthcare Foundation NHS Trust, Northampton, UK, also presented four similar comparison cases from the literature.

Other cases have been reported in the medical and popular press as well. For example, the UK-based Mirrorran an article about a woman, Michelle Philpots, who was similarly stuck in a real Groundhog Day.

Philpots suffered severe head injuries in two separate crashes in 1985 and 1990, and was diagnosed with epilepsy in 1994. To prevent seizures, she underwent brain surgery to remove any dead or damaged brain cells, but has recovered neither her short- nor long-term memory, and probably never will.

And in a bizarre twist, researchers detailed the story of a student trapped in a déjà vu time loop in the Journal of Medical Case Reports. The 23-year-old British man felt as if he were reliving the past, and that he had seen it all before. He couldn’t watch TV, listen to the radio, or read newspapers and magazines. Upon neurological exam, no abnormalities or memory deficits were found.

Researchers are baffled by these rare cases.

Dr. Burgess voiced his frustration:

“There is nothing more than that to go on now. Since publishing the article, web-based stories that have appeared have attracted a few people to write to me with theories or stories around anesthesia and/or tooth extractions and subsequent memory difficulties. A few other profound anterograde amnesia cases in the literature, cited in the original article, followed on from an acute medical emergency involving the spinal column (eg, whiplash), so no clear link to anesthetic effects or tooth extraction that I am aware of. I would be most grateful if others have stories or theories of this or some kind to come forward,” concluded Dr. Burgess.

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