Abstract

There is increasing attention about the role of the thalamus in high cognitive functions, including memory. Although the bulk of the evidence refers to episodic memory, it was recently proposed that the mediodorsal (MD) and the centromedian–parafascicular (CM–Pf) nuclei of the thalamus may process general operations supporting memory performance, not only episodic memory. This perspective agrees with other recent fMRI findings on semantic retrieval in healthy participants. It can therefore be hypothesized that lesions to the MD and the CM–Pf impair semantic retrieval. In this study, 10 patients with focal ischemic lesions in the medial thalamus and 10 healthy controls matched for age, education, and verbal IQ performed a verbal semantic retrieval task. Patients were assigned to a target clinical group and a control clinical group based on lesion localization. Patients did not suffer from aphasia and performed in the range of controls in a categorization and a semantic association task. However, target patients performed poorer than healthy controls on semantic retrieval. The deficit was not because of higher distractibility but of an increased rate of false recall and, in some patients, of a considerably increased rate of misses. The latter deficit yielded a striking difference between the target and the control clinical groups and is consistent with anomia. Follow-up high-resolution structural scanning session in a subsample of patients revealed that lesions in the CM–Pf and MD were primarily associated with semantic retrieval deficits. We conclude that integrity of the MD and the CM–Pf is required for semantic retrieval, possibly because of their role in the activation of phonological representations.

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