The role of the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) in semantic memory is now firmly established. There is still controversy, however, regarding the specific role of this region in processing various types of concepts. There have been reports of patients suffering from semantic dementia (SD), a neurodegenerative condition in which the ATL is damaged bilaterally, who present with greater semantic impairment for concrete concepts than for abstract concepts, an effect known as reversal of the concreteness effect. This effect has previously been interpreted as reflecting degraded visual-perceptual features of objects due to damage to the inferior temporal lobes such as is observed in SD. Temporal lobe atrophy in SD, however, is bilateral even if it usually predominates to the left ATL, and it has been found to extend beyond the ATL, throughout the temporal lobes including medial and posterior temporal lobe regions. The question therefore remains whether greater impairment for concrete concepts results from damage to the ATL or from damage to the visual association cortex, and if unilateral damage can produce such a deficit. The aim of the present study was to investigate the processing of concrete and abstract words in rare patients who underwent a selective ATL surgical resection, and to compare their performance with that of patients with selective medial temporal lobe damage sparing the ATL region. Seven patients with a selective unilateral anterior temporal resection (ATL), 15 patients with a selective unilateral amygdalo-hippocampectomy (SeAH), and 15 healthy age- and education-matched controls underwent detailed neuropsychological assessment and carried out a semantic similarity judgment task evaluating their comprehension of concrete and abstract words. Results showed that both ATL and SeAH groups were significantly impaired on the semantic task relative to the control group. Within the patient groups, however, comprehension of concrete words was significantly more impaired than that of abstract words in the ATL group, while comprehension of abstract and concrete words was equally affected in the SeAH group. Results of this study suggest that the ATL region may play a critical role in processing concrete concepts, and that the reversal of the concreteness effect observed in ATL patients may result from damage to a categorical organization underlying the representation of concrete concepts.
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