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J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2012;34(6):643-53. doi: 10.1080/13803395.2012.667393. Epub 2012 Mar 23.

The loss of conceptual associations in mild Alzheimer's dementia.

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  • 1Department of Internal Medicine and Public Health, University of L'Aquila, Coppito L'Aquila, Italy.


Changes in semantic memory are a controversial topic in research on cognitive decline in aging. In this study, we analyzed whether the semantic deficits in mild Alzheimer's disease (AD) reflect the information acquisition process, and whether the deficits are related to when the information was initially stored. We hypothesized that in the earlier stages of dementia, the ability to access semantic associative relations reflects the use of these associations during different developmental stages. Specifically, we asserted that Alzheimer's patients might be able to access the relations that are learned earlier in life for the longest amount of time compared to those that are learned later. In this study, 254 subjects were divided into four groups (child, adult, senior, and Alzheimer's patients groups) and were evaluated with an experimental semantic association task that incorporated five semantic associative relations that were used to compare performance by age group. An analysis of variance (ANOVA) 4 × 5 test showed a significant main group effect, F(3, 250) = 97.1, p < .001, and an associative relations effect, F(4, 1000) = 23.1, p < .001, as well as an interaction of Group × Associative Relations, F(12, 1000) = 8.5, p < .001. The results demonstrated that the semantic associative relations that were acquired in later developmental stages were less preserved in persons with mild AD (i.e., superordinate relation, p < .0001). On the contrary, the semantic relations acquired earlier in childhood were better preserved in persons with mild AD. Our results suggest that semantic impairment begins with difficulties in using the associative relations that link concepts together in the semantic memory of patients with mild AD dementia (and possibly in individuals with mild cognitive impairment).

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