Different impairments of semantic cognition in semantic dementia and semantic aphasia: Evidence from the non-verbal domain

Faye Corbett, Elizabeth Jefferies, Sheeba Ehsan, Matthew A Lambon Ralph

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    Disorders of semantic cognition in different neuropsychological conditions result from diverse areas of brain damage and may have different underlying causes. This study used a comparative case-series design to examine the hypothesis that relatively circumscribed bilateral atrophy of the anterior temporal lobe in semantic dementia (SD) produces a gradual degradation of core semantic representations, whilst a deficit of cognitive control produces multi-modal semantic impairment in a subset of patients with stroke aphasia following damage involving the left prefrontal cortex or regions in and around the temporoparietal area; this condition, which transcends traditional aphasia classifications, is referred to as 'semantic aphasia' (SA). There have been very few direct comparisons of these patient groups to date and these previous studies have focussed on verbal comprehension. This study used a battery of object-use tasks to extend this line of enquiry into the non-verbal domain for the first time. A group of seven SA patients were identified who failed both word and picture versions of a semantic association task. These patients were compared with eight SD cases. Both groups showed significant deficits in object use but these impairments were qualitatively different. Item familiarity correlated with performance on object-use tasks for the SD group, consistent with the view that core semantic representations are degrading in this condition. In contrast, the SA participants were insensitive to the familiarity of the objects. Further, while the SD patients performed consistently across tasks that tapped different aspects of knowledge and object use for the same items, the performance of the SA participants reflected the control requirements of the tasks. Single object use was relatively preserved in SA but performance on complex mechanical puzzles was substantially impaired. Similarly, the SA patients were able to complete straightforward item matching tasks, such as word-picture matching, but performed more poorly on associative picture-matching tasks, even when the tests involved the same items. The two groups of patients also showed a different pattern of errors in object use. SA patients made substantial numbers of erroneous intrusions in their demonstrations, such as inappropriate object movements. In contrast, response omissions were more common in SD. This study provides converging evidence for qualitatively different impairments of semantic cognition in SD and SA, and uniquely demonstrates this pattern in a non-verbal expressive domainobject use.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2593-2608
    Number of pages15
    Issue number9
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2009


    • Non-verbal
    • Object use
    • Semantic cognition
    • Semantic dementia
    • Semantic memory
    • Stroke aphasia


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