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Semantic verbal fluency (SVF) tasks require individuals to name items from a specified category within a fixed time. An impaired SVF performance is well documented in patients with amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment (aMCI). The two leading theoretical views suggest either loss of semantic knowledge or impaired executive control to be responsible.
We assessed SVF 3 times on 2 consecutive days in 29 healthy controls (HC) and 29 patients with aMCI with the aim to answer the question which of the two views holds true.
When doing the task for the first time, patients with aMCI produced fewer and more common words with a shorter mean response latency. When tested repeatedly, only healthy volunteers increased performance. Likewise, only the performance of HC indicated two distinct retrieval processes: a prompt retrieval of readily available items at the beginning of the task and an active search through semantic space towards the end. With repeated assessment, the pool of readily available items became larger in HC, but not patients with aMCI.
The production of fewer and more common words in aMCI points to a smaller search set and supports the loss of semantic knowledge view. The failure to improve performance as well as the lack of distinct retrieval processes point to an additional impairment in executive control. Our data did not clearly favour one theoretical view over the other, but rather indicates that the impairment of patients with aMCI in SVF is due to a combination of both.
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