Agnosia for bird calls

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The cognitive organisation of nonverbal auditory knowledge remains poorly defined. Deficits of environmental sound as well as word and visual object knowledge are well-recognised in semantic dementia. However, it is unclear how auditory cognition breaks down in this disorder and how this relates to deficits in other knowledge modalities. We had the opportunity to study a patient with a typical syndrome of semantic dementia who had extensive premorbid knowledge of birds, allowing us to assess the impact of the disease on the processing of auditory in relation to visual and verbal attributes of this specific knowledge category. We designed a novel neuropsychological test to probe knowledge of particular avian characteristics (size, behaviour [migratory or nonmigratory], habitat [whether or not primarily water-dwelling]) in the nonverbal auditory, visual and verbal modalities, based on a uniform two-alternative-forced-choice procedure. The patient's performance was compared to healthy older individuals of similar birding experience. We further compared his performance on this test of bird knowledge with his knowledge of familiar human voices and faces. Relative to healthy birder controls, the patient showed marked deficits of bird call and bird name knowledge but relatively preserved knowledge of avian visual attributes and retained knowledge of human voices and faces. In both the auditory and visual modalities, his knowledge of the avian characteristics of size and behaviour was intact whereas his knowledge of the associated characteristic of habitat was deficient. This case provides further evidence that nonverbal auditory knowledge has a fractionated organisation that can be differentially targeted in semantic dementia.

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