Comprehension of Concrete and Abstract Words in Semantic Dementia

Elizabeth Jefferies, Karalyn Patterson, Roy W. Jones, Matthew A. Lambon Ralph

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    The vast majority of brain-injured patients with semantic impairment have better comprehension of concrete than abstract words. In contrast, several patients with semantic dementia (SD), who show circumscribed atrophy of the anterior temporal lobes bilaterally, have been reported to show reverse imageability effects, that is, relative preservation of abstract knowledge. Although these reports largely concern individual patients, some researchers have recently proposed that superior comprehension of abstract concepts is a characteristic feature of SD. This would imply that the anterior temporal lobes are particularly crucial for processing sensory aspects of semantic knowledge, which are associated with concrete not abstract concepts. However, functional neuroimaging studies of healthy participants do not unequivocally predict reverse imageability effects in SD because the temporal poles sometimes show greater activation for more abstract concepts. The authors examined a case-series of 11 SD patients on a synonym judgment test that orthogonally varied the frequency and imageability of the items. All patients had higher success rates for more imageable as well as more frequent words, suggesting that (1) the anterior temporal lobes underpin semantic knowledge for both concrete and abstract concepts, (2) more imageable items-perhaps because of their richer multimodal representations-are typically more robust in the face of global semantic degradation and (3) reverse imageability effects are not a characteristic feature of SD. © 2009 American Psychological Association.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)492-499
    Number of pages7
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Jul 2009


    • anterior temporal
    • concreteness
    • imageability
    • semantic dementia
    • synonym judgment


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