Autobiographical memory in semantic dementia: new insights from two patients using fMRI

Armelle Viard, Béatrice Desgranges, Vanessa Matuszewski, Karine Lebreton, Serge Belliard, Vincent de La Sayette, Francis Eustache, Pascale Piolino
Neuropsychologia 2013, 51 (13): 2620-32
Episodic autobiographical memory (EAM) consists of personal events embedded within a specific spatiotemporal context. Patients with semantic dementia (SD) generally show preserved recent EAMs, but a controversy remains concerning their ability to retrieve remote ones. Only one fMRI study examined remote autobiographical memory in SD through a longitudinal case study (Maguire, Kumaran, Hassabis, & Kopelman, 2010). Here, we propose a cross-sectional study to test the hippocampo-neocortical up-regulation hypothesis, through a multimodal approach (gray matter volume, activation, connectivity analyses), directly comparing recent and remote autobiographical memory retrieval and collecting data to asses phenomelogical re-experiencing. EAM retrieval recruits a distributed network of brain regions, notably the hippocampus which is shown to be atrophied in SD, although some studies report no hippocampal atrophy in SD. Using fMRI, we examined recent and remote EAM retrieval in two SD patients with different profiles of hippocampal atrophy, compared to 12 healthy elders (HE). JPL presented severe bilateral hippocampal atrophy, while EP showed sparing of both hippocampi. Behaviourally, JPL was impaired at retrieving EAMs from both life periods and showed poorer use of visual mental imagery than HE, while EP retrieved memories which were as episodic as those of HE for both periods and relied on greater use of visual mental imagery than HE. Neuroimaging results showed that, for JPL, hyperactivations of the residual hippocampal tissue and of frontal, lateral temporal, occipital and parietal cortices did not efficiently compensate his autobiographical memory deficit. EP however presented hyperactivations in similar neocortical regions which appeared to be more efficient in compensating for atrophy elsewhere, since EP's EAM retrieval was preserved. Functional connectivity analyses focusing on the hippocampus showed how the residual hippocampal activity was connected to other brain areas. For JPL, recent autobiographical retrieval was associated with connectivity between the posterior hippocampus and middle occipital gyrus, while for EP, connectivity was detected between the anterior hippocampus and numerous regions (medial temporal, occipital, temporal, frontal, parietal) for both recent and remote periods. These findings suggest that intensification of hippocampal atrophy in SD strongly affects both recent and remote autobiographical recollection. Up-regulation of neocortical regions and functional hippocampal-neocortical connectivity within the autobiographical network may be insufficient to compensate the lifelong episodic memory deficit for patients with extensive hippocampal atrophy.


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