Background: An exaggerated recency effect (ie, disproportionate recall of last-presented items) has been consistently observed in the word list learning of patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD). Our study sought to determine whether there were similar alterations in serial position learning among asymptomatic persons at risk for AD as a result of parental family history.
Methods: Subjects included 623 asymptomatic middle-aged children of patients with AD (median, 53 years) and 157 control participants whose parents survived to at least age 70 without AD or other memory disorders. All participants were administered the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test, which requires learning and recall of 15 unrelated nouns.
Results: There was no significant difference in total words recalled between the AD children and control groups. However, compared with controls, AD children exhibited a significantly greater tendency to recall words from the end (recency) versus beginning (primacy) of the list. Serial position effects were unrelated to apolipoprotein allele epsilon 4 or depressive symptoms.
Conclusions: Asymptomatic persons at risk for AD by virtue of family history do not show a difference in total words recalled compared with controls, but they exhibit a distinctly different serial position curve, suggesting greater reliance on immediate as opposed to episodic memory. This is the same serial position pattern observed in mild AD, seen here in reduced severity. Longitudinal follow-up is planned to determine whether changes in serial position patterns are a meaningful marker for preclinical detection of AD.