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J Neurolinguistics. 2016 Feb 1;37:68-81.

Am I looking at a cat or a dog? Gaze in the semantic variant of primary progressive aphasia is subject to excessive taxonomic capture.

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Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL.
Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL ; Department of Neurology, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL.
Department of Neurology, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL ; Department of Medical Social Sciences, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL.


Object naming impairments or anomias are the most frequent symptom in aphasia, and can be caused by a variety of underlying neurocognitive mechanisms. Anomia in neurodegenerative or primary progressive aphasias (PPA) often appears to be based on taxonomic blurring of word meaning: words such as "dog" and "cat" are still recognized generically as referring to animals, but are no longer conceptually differentiated from each other, leading to coordinate errors in word-object matching. This blurring is the hallmark symptom of the "semantic variant" of PPA, who invariably show focal atrophy in the left anterior temporal lobe. In this study we used eye tracking to characterize information processing online (in real time) as non-aphasic controls, semantic and non-semantic PPA participants completed a word-to-object matching task. All participants (including controls) showed taxonomic capture of gaze, spending more time viewing foils that were from the same category as the target compared to unrelated foils, but capture was more extreme in the semantic PPA group. The semantic group showed heightened capture even on trials where they ultimately pointed to the correct target, demonstrating the superiority of eye movements over traditional testing methods in detecting subtle processing impairments. Heightened capture was primarily driven by a tendency to direct gaze back and forth, repeatedly, between a set of related foils on each trial, a behavior almost never shown by controls or non-semantic participants. This suggests semantic PPA participants were accumulating and weighing evidence for a probabilistic rather than definitive mapping between the noun and several candidate objects. Neurodegeneration in PPA thus appears to distort lexical concepts prior to extinguishing them altogether, causing uncertainty in recognition and word-object matching.


Eye tracking; Primary Progressive Aphasia; Semantic Interference; Taxonomic; Visual World Paradigm

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