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Open Access Research

Time estimation in mild Alzheimer's disease patients

Luana Caselli1*, Luca Iaboli2 and Paolo Nichelli3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biomedical Sciences and Advanced Therapies, University of Ferrara, Via Fossato di Mortara, Ferrara, Italy

2 Department of Emergency Medicine, Arcispedale Santa Maria Nuova, Via Risorgimento, Reggio Emilia, Italy

3 Department of Neurosciences, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Nuovo Ospedale Civile Sant'Agostino-Estense Via Giardini, Modena, Italy

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Behavioral and Brain Functions 2009, 5:32  doi:10.1186/1744-9081-5-32

Published: 28 July 2009

Abstract

Background

Time information processing relies on memory, which greatly supports the operations of hypothetical internal timekeepers. Scalar Expectancy Theory (SET) postulates the existence of a memory component that is functionally separated from an internal clock and other processing stages. SET has devised several experimental procedures to map these cognitive stages onto cerebral regions and neurotransmitter systems. One of these, the time bisection procedure, has provided support for a dissociation between the clock stage, controlled by dopaminergic systems, and the memory stage, mainly supported by cholinergic neuronal networks. This study aimed at linking the specific memory processes predicted by SET to brain mechanisms, by submitting time bisection tasks to patients with probable Alzheimer's disease (AD), that are known to present substantial degeneration of the fronto-temporal regions underpinning memory.

Methods

Twelve mild AD patients were required to make temporal judgments about intervals either ranging from 100 to 600 ms (short time bisection task) or from 1000 to 3000 ms (long time bisection task). Their performance was compared with that of a group of aged-matched control participants and a group of young control subjects.

Results

Long time bisection scores of AD patients were not significantly different from those of the two control groups. In contrast, AD patients showed increased variability (as indexed by increased WR values) in timing millisecond durations and a generalized inconsistency of responses over the same interval in both the short and long bisection tasks. A similar, though milder, decreased millisecond interval sensitivity was found for elderly subjects.

Conclusion

The present results, that are consistent with those of previous timing studies in AD, are interpreted within the SET framework as not selectively dependent on working or reference memory disruptions but as possibly due to distortions in different components of the internal clock model. Moreover, the similarity between the timing patterns of elderly and AD participants raises the important issue of whether AD may be considered as part of the normal aging process, rather than a proper disease.