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Semantic Feature Disturbance in Alzheimer Disease: Evidence from an Object Decision Task

Flanagan, Kieran J. PhD*,†; Copland, David A. PhD†,‡; Chenery, Helen J. PhD§; Byrne, Gerard J. PhD; Angwin, Anthony J. PhD

Cognitive And Behavioral Neurology: December 2017 - Volume 30 - Issue 4 - p 159–171
doi: 10.1097/WNN.0000000000000140
Original Studies

Background and Objective: It is widely held that semantic disturbance in Alzheimer disease (AD) involves the loss of distinctive features but the relative sparing of nondistinctive features. Many previous studies of semantic feature disturbance have used cognitively challenging tasks with verbal stimuli that allow for potential cognitive confounds. Our objective was to use a task with lower memory demands to investigate distinctive feature disturbance in AD.

Methods: We used an object decision task to compare the processing of distinctive and nondistinctive semantic features in people with AD and age-matched controls. The task included six conditions based on the relationship between each prime and target object. We tested the processing of distinctive and nondistinctive features by selectively altering distinctive and nondistinctive semantic features between prime and target pairs.

Results: Performance accuracy was significantly lower for participants with AD than for age-matched controls when distinctive features were manipulated, but no difference was found when nondistinctive features were manipulated.

Conclusions: Our results provide evidence of semantic content disturbance in AD in the context of a task with low cognitive demands.

Supplemental Digital Content is available in the text.

*Discipline of Speech Pathology, School of Allied Health, Australian Catholic University, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia; and

Division of Speech Pathology, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences

Language Neuroscience Laboratory, Centre for Clinical Research

§Centre for Clinical Research

Discipline of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Supported in part by a National Health and Medical Research Council Clinical Career Development Award and an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (D.A.C.).

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Correspondence: Kieran J. Flanagan, PhD, School of Allied Health, Australian Catholic University, Banyo, Queensland 4014, Australia (e-mail:

Received August 20, 2016

Accepted August 4, 2017

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