Author(s): Sean L Rogers, Rhonda B Friedman
Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and patients with Semantic Dementia (SD) both exhibit deficits on explicit tasks of semantic memory such as picture naming and category fluency. These deficits have been attributed to a degradation of the stored semantic network. An alternative explanation attributes the semantic deficit in AD to an impaired ability to consciously retrieve items from the semantic network. The present study used an implicit lexical-decision priming task to examine the integrity of the underlying semantic network in AD and SD patients matched for degree of impairment on explicit semantic memory tasks. The AD (n=11) and SD (n=11) patient groups were matched for age, education, level of dementia and impairment on four explicit semantic memory tasks. Healthy elderly participants (n=22) were matched for age and education. Semantic priming effects were evaluated for three types of semantic relationships (attributes, category coordinates, and category superordinates) and compared to lexical associative priming. Healthy controls showed significant priming across all conditions. In contrast, AD patients showed normal superordinate priming, and significant (although somewhat reduced) coordinate priming, but no attribute priming. SD patients showed no priming effect for any semantic relationship. All groups showed significant associative priming. The results indicate that SD patients do indeed have substantial degradation of semantic memory, while AD patients have a partially intact network, accounting for priming in superordinate and coordinate conditions. These findings suggest that AD patients’ impairment on explicit semantic tasks is the product of deficient explicit retrieval in combination with a partially degraded semantic network.