The role of semantic distance in category-specific impairments for living things: Evidence from a case of semantic dementia

Gian Daniele Zannino, Roberta Perri, Patrizio Pasqualetti, Margherita Di Paola, Carlo Caltagirone, Giovanni A. Carlesimo

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In this paper, we describe a patient (LI) suffering from semantic dementia who showed a category-specific naming impairment for living things over and above the effects of several nonsemantic confounding variables. We investigated the characteristics of LI's impairment to address the following three issues raised in three different accounts of category-specific impairments: (i) the role of an imbalance in the loss of sensory compared to nonsensory features (assumed by the Sensory Functional Theory [Warrington, E. K., & Shallice, T. (1984). Category-specific semantic impairments. Brain, 107, 829-859]); (ii) the role of cross domain differences in Feature Correlation (assumed by the Conceptual Structure Account [Moss, H., Tyler, L. K., & Devlin, J. T. (2002). The emergence of category-specific deficits in a distributed semantic system. In: E. M. E. Forde & G. W. Humphreys (Eds.), Category Specificity in Brain and Mind (pp. 115-147). New York: Psychology Press]); (iii) the role of semantic distance (proposed by Cree and McRae [Cree, G. S., & McRae, K. (2003). Analyzing the factors underlying the structure and computation of the meaning of chipmunk, cherry, chisel, cheese, and cello (and many other such concrete nouns). Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132, 163-201]). We found that semantic distance was the only factor causally linked to LI's poorer performance on living things. In fact, her naming performance was less accurate on items that had many semantic neighbours, which is typical of living things. On the contrary, a feature listing task revealed that the features available to LI were not predicted by their level of correlation, as expected by the Conceptual Structure Account. Finally, at variance with the Sensory Functional Theory, although LI quoted sensory features less accurately than nonsensory ones, this did not give rise to a disproportionate loss of semantic features in the living domain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1017-1028
Number of pages12
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2006


  • Category effect
  • Dementia
  • Semantic memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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