'Language of the past' - Exploring past tense disruption during autobiographical narration in neurodegenerative disorders

J Neuropsychol. 2016 Sep;10(2):295-316. doi: 10.1111/jnp.12073. Epub 2015 May 27.


Compromised retrieval of autobiographical memory (ABM) is well established in neurodegenerative disorders. The recounting of autobiographical events is inextricably linked to linguistic knowledge, yet no study to date has investigated whether tense use during autobiographical narration is disrupted in dementia syndromes. This study investigated the incidence of correct past tense use during ABM narration in patients with Alzheimer's disease (AD, n = 10) and semantic dementia (SD, n = 10) in comparison with healthy older Controls (n = 10). Autobiographical narratives were analysed for episodic content (internal/external) and classified according to tense use (past/present). Across both patient groups, use of the past tense was significantly compromised relative to Controls, with increased levels of off-target present tense verbs observed. Voxel-based morphometry analyses based on structural MRI revealed differential associations between past tense use and regions of grey matter intensity in the brain. Bilateral temporal cortices were implicated in the SD group, whereas frontal, lateral, and medial temporal regions including the right hippocampus emerged in AD. This preliminary study provides the first demonstration of the disruption of specific linguistic constructs during autobiographical narration in AD and SD. Future studies are warranted to clarify at what point in the disease trajectory such deficits in tense use emerge, and whether these deficits are a product or contributing factor in memory disruption in these syndromes.

Keywords: autobiographical memory; dementia; episodic memory; hippocampus; inferior frontal gyrus; language; semantic memory; temporal lobe.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Cognition Disorders / diagnosis
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory Disorders / diagnosis
  • Memory Disorders / etiology*
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Middle Aged
  • Narration*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / complications*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / diagnostic imaging
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Semantics*