Information that is processed with reference to the self (i.e., self-referential processing, SRP) is generally associated with better remembering than information processed in a semantic condition. This benefit of self on memory performance is called self-reference effect (SRE). In the present study, we assessed changes in the SRE and SRP-related brain activity in patients diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer's disease (MCI/AD). Fifteen patients with confirmed amyloid-β deposits (positive florbetapir-PET scan) and 28 healthy controls (negative florbetapir-PET scan) were included. Participants either had to judge personality trait adjectives with reference to themselves (self condition) or to a celebrity (other condition), or determine whether these adjectives were positive or not (semantic condition). These adjectives were then presented with distractors in a surprise recognition task. Functional MRI data were acquired during both the judgment and recognition tasks. The SRE was observed in controls, but reduced in patients. Both controls and patients activated cortical midline structures when judging items with reference to themselves, but patients exhibited reduced activity in the angular gyrus. In patients, activity at encoding in the angular gyrus positively correlated with subsequent recognition accuracy in the self condition (self accuracy). This region also exhibited significant hypometabolism and Aβ burden, both related to self accuracy. By contrast, there were no differences in brain activity during recognition, either between the self and semantic conditions, or between groups. These results highlight SRE impairment in patients with MCI/AD, despite intact activity in cortical midline structures, and suggest that dysfunction of the angular gyrus is related to this impairment.
Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; functional magnetic resonance imaging; memory; psychology; self.