Primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a selective neurodegeneration of the language network, frequently causes object naming impairments. We examined the N400 event-related potential (ERP) to explore interactions between object recognition and word processing in 20 PPA patients and 15 controls. Participants viewed photographs of objects, each followed by a word that was either a match to the object, a semantically related mismatch, or an unrelated mismatch. Patients judged whether word-object pairs matched with high accuracy (94% PPA group; 98% control group), but they failed to exhibit the normal N400 category effect (N400c), defined as a larger N400 to unrelated versus related mismatch words. In contrast, the N400 mismatch effect (N400m), defined as a larger N400 to mismatch than match words, was observed in both groups. N400m magnitude was positively correlated with neuropsychological measures of word comprehension but not fluency or grammatical competence, and therefore reflected the semantic component of naming. After ERP testing, patients were asked to name the same set of objects aloud. Trials with objects that could not be named were found to lack an N400m, although the name had been correctly recognized at the matching stage. Even accurate overt naming did not necessarily imply normal semantic processing, as shown by the absent N400c. The N400m was preserved in one patient with postsemantic anomia, who could write the names of objects she could not verbalize. N400 analyses can thus help dissect the multiple cognitive mechanisms that contribute to object naming failures in PPA.
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