How does linguistic knowledge contribute to short-term memory? Contrasting effects of impaired semantic knowledge and executive control

Paul Hoffman, Elizabeth Jefferies, Sheeba Ehsan, Roy W. Jones, Matthew A. Lambon Ralph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Linguistic knowledge makes an important contribution to verbal STM. Some theories, including Baddeley's original conception of the episodic buffer, hold that harnessing linguistic knowledge to support STM is executively demanding. However, some recent evidence suggests that the linguistic contribution does not depend on executive resources.

Aims: In this study we tested the hypothesis that activation of language representations is automatic and that executive control is most important when the material to be remembered is incompatible with this automatic activation.

Methods & Procedures: Word list recall was tested in three patients with transcortical sensory aphasia (TSA) following stroke. All had preserved word repetition and digit span but poor comprehension associated with impaired executive control. They were compared with two semantic dementia (SD) patients with degraded semantic representations but intact executive control. Patients repeated word lists that varied in their semantic and syntactic resemblance to meaningful sentences.

Outcomes & Results: The executively impaired TSA patients showed large benefits of semantic and syntactic structure, indicating that their executive deficits did not interfere with the normal linguistic contribution to STM. Instead they showed severe deficits in repetition of scrambled word lists that did not follow usual syntactic rules. On these, the patients changed the word order to better fit their existing knowledge of syntactic structure. In contrast, the SD patients had no problems repeating words in unusual sequences but their semantic knowledge degradation led to frequent phonological errors due to a loss of "semantic binding", the process by which semantic knowledge of words helps to constrain their phonological representation.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that linguistic support for STM consists of (a) automatic activation of semantic and syntactic knowledge and (b) executive processes that inhibit this activation when it is incompatible with the material to be remembered.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)383-403
Number of pages21
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012

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