Episodic memory in frontotemporal dementia: A critical review

Michael Hornberger, Olivier Piguet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

159 Citations (Scopus)


This review offers a critical appraisal of the literature on episodic memory performance in frontotemporal dementia. Historically, description of patients diagnosed with what was then known as Pick's disease included the presence of memory deficits and an underlying amnestic syndrome was noted in some of these patients. Over the last 20 years, however, the clinical view has been that episodic memory processing is relatively intact in the frontotemporal dementia syndrome. In particular, patients with the subtypes of behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia and progressive non-fluent aphasia are reported to perform within normal limits on standard memory tests. In the third clinical presentation of frontotemporal dementia, semantic dementia, relatively intact episodic memory against a significantly impaired semantic memory was regarded as the hallmark. This position was instrumental in the development of clinical diagnostic criteria for frontotemporal dementia in which amnesia was explicitly listed as an exclusion criterion for the disease. The relative intactness of episodic memory, therefore, appeared to be a useful diagnostic marker to distinguish early frontotemporal dementia from Alzheimer's disease, in which early episodic memory disturbance remains the most common clinical feature. We argue that recent evidence questions the validity of preserved episodic memory in frontotemporal dementia, particularly in behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia. In semantic dementia, a complex picture emerges with preservation of some components of episodic memory, notably recognition-based visual memory and recall of recent autobiographical events. We propose a critical synthesis of recent neuropsychological evidence on retrograde and anterograde memory in light of neuroimaging and neuropathological findings, demonstrating involvement of medial temporal structures in frontotemporal dementia, structures known to be critical for episodic memory processing. We further argue that the multifactorial nature of most memory tests commonly used clinically fail to capture the memory deficits in frontotemporal dementia and that sensitive assessment tools of memory are needed. Together, recent clinical and experimental findings and the historical evidence represent a strong case for a re-evaluation of the importance of memory disturbance in the clinical diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)678-692
Number of pages15
Issue number3
Early online date24 Feb 2012
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2012


  • anterograde memory
  • retrograde memory
  • semantic dementia

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