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Brain. 2004 Apr;127(Pt 4):860-72. Epub 2004 Feb 25.

Knowledge of famous faces and names in semantic dementia.

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Cerebral Function Unit, Greater Manchester Neuroscience Centre, Hope Hospital, Salford M6 8HD, UK.


Semantic dementia is a focal clinical syndrome, resulting from degeneration of the temporal lobes and characterized by progressive loss of conceptual knowledge about the world. Because of the highly circumscribed nature of the disorder it is a natural model for improving understanding of how semantic information is cerebrally represented. There is currently a lack of consensus. One view proposes the existence of modality specific meaning systems, in which visual and verbal information are stored separately. An opposing view assumes that information is represented by a unitary, amodal semantic system. The present study explores these alternatives in an examination of famous face and name knowledge in 15 patients with semantic dementia. The study of face recognition in patients with an established semantic disorder also permits an examination of the relationship between semantic dementia and the focal clinical syndrome of progressive prosopagnosia. The semantic dementia patients were profoundly impaired on both face and name identification and familiarity judgement tasks compared with amnesic patients with Alzheimer's disease and healthy controls. However, whereas the two reference groups performed better for names than faces, the semantic group showed the opposite pattern. This overall profile masked individual differences: semantic dementia patients with predominant left temporal lobe atrophy showed better recognition of names than faces, whereas patients with right temporal predominance showed the reverse pattern. Relative superiority for names or faces was mirrored by corresponding superiority for words or pictures on a standard semantic test. We interpret the findings as inconsistent with a unitary, amodal model of semantic memory. However, the data are not wholly compatible with a strict multiple system account. The data favour a model of semantic memory comprising a single interconnected network, with dedicated brain regions representing modality specific information. The data emphasize the importance of the anterior, inferolateral parts of the left temporal lobe for the representation of names and the corresponding parts of the right temporal lobe for faces. Dissociations between face and name knowledge provide a challenge for existing models of face processing. Moreover, they lead us to argue that the focal syndrome of progressive prosopagnosia is one of the clinical presentations of semantic dementia and not a separate clinical entity.

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