The self-reference effect in dementia: Differential involvement of cortical midline structures in Alzheimer’s disease and behavioural-variant frontotemporal dementia

Stephanie Wong, Muireann Irish, Eric D. Leshikar, Audrey Duarte, Maxime Bertoux, Greg Savage, John R. Hodges, Olivier Piguet, Michael Hornberger

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Encoding information in reference to the self enhances subsequent memory for the source of this information. In healthy adults, self-referential processing has been proposed to be mediated by the cortical midline structures (CMS), with functional differentiation between anterior-ventral, anterior-dorsal and posterior regions. While both Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and behavioural-variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) patients show source memory impairment, it remains unclear whether they show a typical memory advantage for self-referenced materials. We also sought to identify the neural correlates of this so-called ‘self-reference effect’ (SRE) in these patient groups. The SRE paradigm was tested in AD (n=16) and bvFTD (n=22) patients and age-matched healthy controls (n=17). In this task, participants studied pictures of common objects paired with one of two background scenes (sources) under self-reference or other-reference encoding instructions, followed by an item and source recognition memory test. Voxel-based morphometry was used to investigate correlations between SRE measures and regions of grey matter atrophy in the CMS. The behavioural results indicated that self-referential encoding did not ameliorate the significant source memory impairments in AD and bvFTD patients. Furthermore, the reduced benefit of self-referential relative to other-referential encoding was not related to general episodic memory deficits. Our imaging findings revealed that reductions in the SRE were associated with atrophy in the anterior-dorsal CMS across both patient groups, with additional involvement of the posterior CMS in AD and anterior-ventral CMS in bvFTD. These findings suggest that although the SRE is comparably reduced in AD and bvFTD, this arises due to impairments in different subcomponents of self-referential processing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169–185
Number of pages17
Early online date3 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017


  • Self-reference effect
  • Source memory
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Behavioural-variant frontotemporal dementia
  • voxel-based morphometry

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