Longitudinal studies of semantic dementia: the relationship between structural and functional changes over time.


The pattern of brain atrophy in semantic dementia and its associated cognitive effects have attracted a considerable body of research, but the nature of core impairments remains disputed. A key issue is whether the disease encompasses one neurocognitive network (semantics) or two (language and semantics). In order to address these conflicting perspectives, we conducted a longitudinal investigation of two semantic dementia patients, in which behavioural performance across a range of measures of language and semantic performance was assessed and interpreted in the context of annually acquired MRI scans. Our results indicated a core semantic impairment in early stages of the disease, associated with atrophy of the inferior, anterior temporal cortex. Linguistic impairments emerged later, and were contingent on atrophy having spread into areas widely believed to subserve core language processes (left posterior perisylvian, inferior frontal and insular cortex). We claim, therefore, that phonological, syntactic and morphological processing deficits in semantic dementia reflect damage to core language areas. Further, we propose that much of the current controversy over the nature of deficits in semantic dementia reflect a tendency in the literature to adopt a static perspective on what is a progressive disease. An approach in which the relationship between progressive neural changes and behavioural change over time is carefully mapped, offers a more constraining data-set from which to draw inferences about the relationship between language, semantics and the brain.