Autobiographical memory and autonoetic consciousness: triple dissociation in neurodegenerative diseases

Pascale Piolino, Béatrice Desgranges, Serge Belliard, Vanessa Matuszewski, Catherine Lalevée, Vincent De la Sayette, Francis Eustache
Brain 2003, 126 (Pt 10): 2203-19
Few studies have investigated autobiographical amnesia in neurodegenerative diseases and yet these pathologies are particularly relevant when addressing the issue of theories of long-term memory consolidation. According to the standard model, the medial temporal lobe (MTL) is involved in the storage and retrieval of episodic and semantic memories during a limited period of years. An alternative model, the multiple trace theory (MTT), suggests that the capacity of the MTL to recollect episodic memories is of a more permanent nature. In order to test these models, we studied three groups of patients with a neurodegenerative disease predominantly affecting different cerebral structures namely the MTL (13 patients in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease) and the neocortex involving either the anterior temporal lobe (10 patients with semantic dementia) or the frontal lobe (15 patients with the frontal variant of frontotemporal dementia, fv-FTD). We compared these groups of patients with control subjects using an original and reliable autobiographical memory task designed specially to assess strictly episodic memory over the entire lifespan. This task, developed on the basis of the most up-to-date definition of episodic memory, takes into account the ability to mentally travel back in time and re-experience the source of acquisition (remembering, i.e. autonoetic consciousness) via the remember/know paradigm. All three groups of patients produced strongly contrasting profiles of autobiographical amnesia (regardless of the nature of the memories), which also differed markedly from that of the control group: temporally graded memory loss in Alzheimer's disease, showing that remote memories are better preserved than recent ones; memory loss with a reversed gradient in semantic dementia; and memory loss without any clear gradient in fv-FTD. Most strictly episodic memories (i.e. unique, specific in time and space, and detailed) were impaired, whatever the time interval considered in the three groups, though the memory loss was ungraded in Alzheimer's disease and fv-FTD, and temporally graded in semantic dementia, sparing the most recent period. A deficit of autonoetic consciousness emerged in Alzheimer's disease and fv-FTD, but not in semantic dementia, though beyond the most recent 12-month period, the latter group could not justify their subjective sense of remembering to the same extent as the controls, in terms of the actual contextual information retrieved-phenomenological, spatial or temporal details. Our results demonstrate that autobiographical amnesia varies according to the nature of the memories under consideration and the locus of cerebral dysfunction. They are discussed in the light of the two competing models of long-term memory consolidation and recent conceptions of autobiographical recollection: new insights based on current concepts of episodic memories challenge the standard model and tend to support the MTT instead.


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