‘Language of the past’: exploring past tense disruption during autobiographical narration in neurodegenerative disorders

Muireann Irish*, Jody Kamminga, Donna Rose Addis, Stephen Crain, Rosalind Thornton, John R. Hodges, Olivier Piguet

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    20 Citations (Scopus)


    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.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)295-316
    Number of pages22
    JournalJournal of neuropsychology
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2016


    • autobiographical memory
    • dementia
    • episodic memory
    • hippocampus
    • inferior frontal gyrus
    • language
    • semantic memory
    • temporal lobe


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