Semantic dementia patients seem to have better knowledge of information linked to the self. More specifically, despite having severe semantic impairment, these patients show that they have more general information about the people they know personally by direct experience than they do about other individuals they know indirectly. However, the role of direct personal experience remains debated because of confounding factors such as frequency, recency of exposure, and affective relevance. We performed an exploratory study comparing the performance of five semantic dementia patients with that of 10 matched healthy controls on the recognition (familiarity judgment) and identification (biographic information recall) of personally familiar names vs. famous names. As expected, intergroup comparisons indicated a semantic breakdown in semantic dementia patients as compared with healthy controls. Moreover, unlike healthy controls, the semantic dementia patients recognized and identified personally familiar names better than they did famous names. This pattern of results suggests that direct personal experience indeed plays a specific role in the relative preservation of person-specific semantic meaning in semantic dementia. We discuss the role of direct personal experience on the preservation of semantic knowledge and the potential neurophysiological mechanisms underlying these processes.
Keywords: autobiographical memory; famous names; personal experience; personally familiar names; self; semantic dementia; semantic memory.