The decline in semantic memory observed in Alzheimer's disease is presumed to result from progressive loss of the attributes underlying category representation. Here, we explored the possibility that semantic deterioration would affect attributes differently, depending on the type of semantic relationship connecting the subject and the object of the attribution.

We compared the performance of 50 patients with probable Alzheimer's disease (APs) to that of 30 elderly controls in two semantic tasks: a verbal sentence verification task and a visual test of analogical relations, both including several types of semantic relations. On the sentence verification task, the performance of APs was comparable to that of elderly controls when statements were true, but deteriorated significantly when statements were false. This result was interpreted as a failure of controlled processes to successfully search semantic space when statements were incongruent or false. In addition, all participants found some semantic relations more difficult to process than others, with relative difficulty being consistent across tasks. Taxonomic semantic relations were the most difficult, while part/whole relations were the easiest, but also the ones to deteriorate most rapidly. In contrast, functional attributes were comparatively preserved as the disease progressed.

These results emphasize the role of attention and semantic context in jointly determining access to relevant attributes and categories. Furthermore, they suggest that semantic memory impairments in Alzheimer's are affected by the type of processing and semantic relationship required by the task.