Lost or unavailable? Exploring mechanisms that affect retrograde memory in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease patients


Retrograde amnesia has been largely documented in patients with amnestic mild cognitive impairment (a-MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). However, it is still not clear whether ineffectiveness in recalling past acquired information reflects loss of individual memory traces or failure to access specific stored traces. We aimed to disentangle the differential contribution of storage and retrieval processes to the pattern of retrograde amnesia in these patients. This issue was investigated in 18 a-MCI and 19 AD patients who were compared to 20 healthy controls. A novel questionnaire about public events was used; it consisted of two procedures (i.e., a free recall test and a true/false recognition test). Crucial differences emerged in the way the two groups of patients performed the experimental tasks. In fact, although both a-MCI and AD patients showed a similar pattern of impairment on the free recall test, a-MCI patients were able to normalise their performance on the recognition test, thus overcoming their deficits at the time of recall. Conversely, AD patients showed both reduced free recall ability and diminished sensitivity to benefit from recognition in recalling public events. Our findings suggest that the memory processes underlying RA were different for a-MCI and AD. Deficits in remote memory are prevalently explained by impaired retrieval abilities in a-MCI and by impaired storage in AD. This distinction between retrograde amnesia due to defective trace utilisation in a-MCI and trace storage in AD is consistent with the temporal unfolding of declining anterograde memory over the course of disease progression to AD.

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This work has been supported by Ricerca Corrente grants (Italian Ministry of Health) from the IRCC Santa Lucia Foundation—Linea di ricerca: Neurologia Clinica e Comportamentale.

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Correspondence to Maria Stefania De Simone.

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This study was approved by the ethics committee of the Santa Lucia Foundation in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments. All participants gave their written informed consent prior to their inclusion in the study.

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De Simone, M.S., De Tollis, M., Fadda, L. et al. Lost or unavailable? Exploring mechanisms that affect retrograde memory in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease patients. J Neurol 267, 113–124 (2020).

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  • Retrograde amnesia
  • Mild cognitive impairment
  • Alzheimer disease
  • Memory impairment
  • Public events