Impaired assessment of cumulative lifetime familiarity for object concepts after left anterior temporal-lobe resection that includes perirhinal cortex but spares the hippocampus

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Abstract

The ability to recognize the prior occurrence of objects can operate effectively even in the absence of successful recollection of episodic contextual detail about a relevant past object encounter. The pertinent process, familiarity assessment, is typically probed in humans with recognition-memory tasks that include an experimentally controlled study phase for a list of items. When meaningful stimuli such as words or pictures of common objects are employed, participants must judge familiarity with reference to the recent experimental encounter rather than their lifetime of autobiographical experience, which may have involved hundreds or thousands of exposures across numerous episodic contexts. Humans can, however, also judge the cumulative familiarity of objects concepts they have encountered over their lifetime. At present, little is known about the cognitive and neural mechanisms that support this ability. Here, we tested an individual (NB) with a rare left anterior temporal-lobe lesion that included perirhinal cortex but spared the hippocampus, who had previously been found to exhibit selective impairments in familiarity assessment on verbal recognition-memory tasks. As NB exhibits normal recollection abilities, her case presents a unique opportunity to examine potential links between both types of familiarity. In Experiment 1, we demonstrated that NB's impairment in making recognition judgments affects cumulative frequency judgments for exposure to concept names in a recent study episode. Experiments 2 and 3 revealed, with a task borrowed from the semantic-memory literature, that NB's impairments do indeed extend to abnormalities in judging cumulative lifetime familiarity for object concepts. These abnormalities were not limited to verbal processing, and were present even when pictures were offered as additional cues. Moreover, they showed sensitivity to concept structure as reflected in semantic feature norms; we only observed them for judgments on object concepts with high feature overlap. In Experiment 4, we found that an amnesic patient (HC) with previously established deficits in autobiographical recollection, due to a selective lesion of the extended hippocampal system, does not exhibit any abnormalities in assessing lifetime familiarity. Together, these findings provide support for a functional link between the assessment of recent changes in familiarity, as probed with experimental study-test paradigms, and cumulative lifetime familiarity based on autobiographical experience accrued outside the laboratory. They argue in favor of the notion that familiarity is closely related to the representation of concept knowledge, likely through computations in perirhinal cortex.

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