First example of a heritable abnormality affecting semantic cognition found

Four generations of a single family have been found to possess an abnormality within a specific brain region which appears to affect their ability to recall verbal material, a new study by researchers at the University of Bristol and University College London has found.

This is the first suggestion of a heritable abnormality in otherwise healthy humans, and this has important implications for our understanding of the of cognition.

Dr Josie Briscoe of Bristol's School of and colleagues at the Institute of Child Health in London studied eight members of a single family (aged 8 years), who despite all having high levels of intelligence have since childhood, experienced profound difficulties in recalling sentences and prose, and language difficulties in listening comprehension and naming less common objects .

While their conversation is articulate and engaging, they can experience the inability to 'find' a particular word or topic – a phenomenon similar to the 'tip-of-the-tongue' problem experienced by many people. They also report associated problems such as struggling to follow a narrative thread while reading or watching television drama.

Dr Briscoe said: "With their consent, we conducted a number of standard memory and language tests on the affected members of the family. These showed they had difficulty repeating longer sentences correctly and learning words in lists and pairs. This suggests their difficulties lie in semantic cognition: the way people construct and generate meaning from words, objects and ideas."

"Given the very wide variation in age, the coherence of their difficulties in semantic cognition was remarkable."

The researchers also used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to study the brains of the affected family members and found they had reduced grey matter in the posterior inferior portion of the temporal lobe, a brain area known to be involved in semantic cognition.

Dr Briscoe said: "These brain abnormalities were surprising to find in healthy people, particularly in the same family, although similar have been implicated in research with older adults with neurological problems that are linked to semantic cognition"

"Our findings have uncovered a potential causal link between anomalous neuroanatomy and semantic cognition in a single . Importantly, the pattern of inheritance appears as a potentially dominant trait. This may well prove to be the first example of a heritable, highly specific abnormality affecting semantic cognition in humans."

More information: The research is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Related Stories

How the brain copes in language-impaired kids

date Mar 12, 2008

Researchers at UCL (University College London) have discovered that a system in the brain for processing grammar is impaired in some children with specific language impairment (SLI), but that these children compensate with ...

When the zebra loses its stripes

date Dec 20, 2010

The capacity to remember that a zebra has stripes, or that a giraffe is a four-legged mammal, is known as semantic memory. It allows us to assign meaning to words and to recall general knowledge and concepts that we have ...

Recommended for you

Men and women could use different cells to process pain

date 9 hours ago

We have known for some time that there are sex differences when it comes to experiencing pain, with women showing a higher sensitivity to painful events compared to men. While we don't really understand w ...

Pupillary reflex enhanced by light inside blind spot

date 10 hours ago

University of Tokyo researchers have found that the light reflex of the pupil is modulated by light stimulation inside the blind spot in normal human observers, even though that light is not perceived.

How your brain knows it's summer

date Jun 29, 2015

Researchers led by Toru Takumi at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan have discovered a key mechanism underlying how animals keep track of the seasons. The study, published in Proceedings of the Na ...

His and her pain circuitry in the spinal cord

date Jun 29, 2015

New research released today in Nature Neuroscience reveals for the first time that pain is processed in male and female mice using different cells. These findings have far-reaching implications for our ba ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.