Is “Learning” episodic memory? Distinct cognitive and neuroanatomic correlates of immediate recall during learning trials in neurologically normal aging and neurodegenerative cohorts

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Although commonly interpreted as a marker of episodic memory during neuropsychological exams, relatively little is known regarding the neurobehavior of “total learning” immediate recall scores. Medial temporal lobes are clearly associated with delayed recall performances, yet immediate recall may necessitate networks beyond traditional episodic memory. We aimed to operationalize cognitive and neuroanatomic correlates of total immediate recall in several aging syndromes. Demographically-matched neurologically normal adults (n=91), individuals with Alzheimer's disease (n=566), logopenic variant primary progressive aphasia (PPA) (n=34), behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (n=97), semantic variant PPA (n=71), or nonfluent/agrammatic variant PPA (n=39) completed a neurocognitive battery, including the CVLT-Short Form trials 1–4 Total Immediate Recall; a majority subset also completed a brain MRI. Regressions covaried for age and sex, and MMSE in cognitive and total intracranial volume in neuroanatomic models. Neurologically normal adults demonstrated a heterogeneous pattern of cognitive associations with total immediate recall (executive, speed, delayed recall), such that no singular cognitive or neuroanatomic correlate uniquely predicted performance. Within the clinical cohorts, there were syndrome-specific cognitive and neural associations with total immediate recall; e.g., semantic processing was the strongest cognitive correlate in svPPA (partial r=0.41), while frontal volumes was the only meaningful neural correlate in bvFTD (partial r=0.20). Medial temporal lobes were not independently associated with total immediate recall in any group (ps>0.05). Multiple neurobehavioral systems are associated with “total learning” immediate recall scores that importantly differ across distinct clinical syndromes. Conventional memory networks may not be sufficient or even importantly contribute to total immediate recall in many syndromes. Interpreting learning scores as equivalent to episodic memory may be erroneous.

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