Volumetric magnetic resonance imaging analyses of 30 subjects were undertaken to quantify the global and temporal lobe atrophy in semantic dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Three groups of 10 subjects were studied: semantic dementia patients, Alzheimer's disease patients, and control subjects. The temporal lobe structures measured were the amygdala, hippocampus, entorhinal cortex, parahippocampal gyrus, fusiform gyrus, and superior, middle, and inferior temporal gyri. Semantic dementia and Alzheimer's disease groups did not differ significantly on global atrophy measures. In semantic dementia, there was asymmetrical temporal lobe atrophy, with greater left-sided damage. There was an anteroposterior gradient in the distribution of temporal lobe atrophy, with more marked atrophy anteriorly. All left anterior temporal lobe structures were affected in semantic dementia, with the entorhinal cortex, amygdala, middle and inferior temporal gyri, and fusiform gyrus the most severely damaged. Asymmetrical, predominantly anterior hippocampal atrophy was also present. In Alzheimer's disease, there was symmetrical atrophy of the entorhinal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala, with no evidence of an anteroposterior gradient in the distribution of temporal lobe or hippocampal atrophy. These data demonstrate that there is a marked difference in the distribution of temporal lobe atrophy in semantic dementia and Alzheimer's disease. In addition, the pattern of atrophy in semantic dementia suggests that semantic memory is subserved by anterior temporal lobe structures, within which the middle and inferior temporal gyri may play a key role.