Working memory deficits are a recognised feature of Alzheimer's disease (AD). They are commonly ascribed to central executive impairment and assumed to relate to frontal lobe dysfunction. Performance failures on standard tests of attention and executive function reinforce this interpretation. Nevertheless, early-onset AD patients do not show the frank behavioural changes indicative of frontal lobe dysfunction, and the characteristic functional neuroimaging changes are in posterior hemispheres rather than frontal lobes. We explored this anomaly through a comparison of working memory, attention and executive test performance in patients with AD (a 'typical' early-onset group with deficits in memory, language and perceptuospatial function and an 'amnesic' group) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Typical-AD and FTD patients both showed impaired performance, whereas amnesic-AD patients performed well. Despite similar quantitative performance measures, typical-AD and FTD patients showed qualitatively distinct performance profiles. Impairments in FTD patients were interpreted in 'frontal' executive terms as deficits in attention, set shifting and response inhibition. AD patients' performance appeared to be influenced by information load and was interpreted in terms of working memory capacity. In keeping with these different interpretations, neuroimaging showed characteristic frontal lobe abnormalities in FTD and temporoparietal change in typical-AD. The findings highlight the importance of the posterior hemispheres in working memory and point to a need for caution in the automatic attribution of working memory, attention and executive test failures to frontal lobe failure. They underline also the phenotypic variation within AD.
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