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Which Memory System is Impaired First in Alzheimer's Disease?


Diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (AD) in its earliest stages becomes increasingly important as disease modifying agents are being developed. In this area of research, many clinical and neuroimaging studies focus on markers of hippocampal dysfunction. However, during the “transentorhinal stage” of AD, neurofibrillary tangles (NFT), related to tau protein pathology, develop in the anterior subhippocampal (perirhinal/entorhinal) cortex before the hippocampus. NFT are tightly correlated with clinical symptoms. Therefore, an accurate understanding of the behavioral correlate of transentorhinal dysfunction could critically contribute to the early diagnosis of the disease. Recent findings from studies in animals and human brain-damaged patients suggest that the anterior subhippocampal region, functionally integrated into an anterior mesiotemporal network, is involved in object based context-free memory. In this article, we evaluate the hypothesis according to which tau deposition in the anterior subhippocampal region during the earliest stages of the most common form of AD, with predominant MTL dysfunction, will lead to dysfunction of neural networks implicated in context-free memory. We challenge the view that impaired episodic memory is the hallmark of early AD. Instead, a model that integrates the localization and temporal sequence of NFT within the mesial temporal lobe (MTL) is proposed. Paralleling the development of NFT in anterior subhippocampal areas, impaired context-free, object-based, memory could be the first detectable sign in AD. In a subsequent, “hippocampal” stage, context-rich, episodic and spatial memory, becomes altered as well. The question as to the “episodic” nature of “episodic memory tasks” is also addressed.