Individuals with semantic dementia (SD) have impaired autobiographical memory (AM), but the extent of the impairment has been controversial. According to one report (Westmacott et al., 2001), patient performance was better when visual cues were used instead of verbal cues; however, the visual cues used in that study (family photographs) provided more retrieval support than do the word cues that are typically used in AM studies. In the present study, we sought to disentangle the effects of retrieval support and cue modality.
We cued AMs of 5 SD patients and 5 controls with words, simple pictures, and odors. Memories were elicited from childhood, early adulthood, and recent adulthood; they were scored for level of detail and episodic specificity.
The patients were impaired across all time periods and stimulus modalities. Within the patient group, words and pictures were equally effective as cues (Friedman test; χ2 = 0.25, p = 0.61), whereas odors were less effective than both words and pictures (for words vs. odors, χ2 = 7.83, p = 0.005; for pictures vs. odors, χ2 = 6.18, p = 0.01). There was no evidence of a temporal gradient in either group (for SD patients, χ2 = 0.24, p = 0.89; for controls, χ2 < 2.07, p = 0.35).
Once the effect of retrieval support is equated across stimulus modalities, there is no evidence for an advantage of visual cues over verbal cues. The greater impairment for olfactory cues presumably reflects degeneration of anterior temporal regions that support olfactory memory.