Brain, 123 ( Pt 9):1948-63.
Amnesic patients often show improved performance when stimuli are repeated, even in the absence of conscious memory for those stimuli. Although these performance changes are typically attributed to perceptual or motor systems, in some cases they may be related to basic language processing. We examined two neurophysiological measures that vary with word repetition in 12 amnesic patients and 12 control subjects: (i) a late positive component of the event-related potential (ERP) linked to conscious memory and (ii) the N400 component that varies with language comprehension. In each trial, the subject heard a category name, then viewed a word, and then decided whether the word was semantically congruous or incongruous (e.g. ‘yes’ for ‘baby animal: cub’; ‘no’ for ‘water sport: kitchen’). Recall and recognition testing at the end of the experiment showed that control subjects had better memory for congruous than for incongruous words, as did the amnesic patients, who performed less well overall. In contrast, amnesic patients were unimpaired on the category decisions required in each trial and, like the control subjects, showed a large N400 for incongruous relative to congruous words. Similarly, when incongruous trials were repeated after 0-13 intervening trials, N400s were reduced in both groups. When congruous trials were repeated, a late positive repetition effect was observed, but only in the control group. Furthermore, the amplitude of the late positive repetition effect was highly correlated with later word recall in both patients and controls. In the patients, the correlation was also observed with memory scores from standardized neuropsychological tests. These data are consistent with a proposed link between the late positive repetition effect and conscious memory. On the other hand, the N400 repetition effect was not correlated with episodic memory abilities, but instead indexed an aspect of memory that was intact in the amnesic patients. The preserved N400 repetition effect is an example of preserved memory in amnesia that does not easily fit into the categories of low-level perceptual processing or of motor learning. Instead, the sensitivity of the N400 to both semantic context and repetition may reflect a short-term memory process that serves language comprehension in realtime.