Background: Impairments in component processes of working and episodic memory mark both HIV infection and chronic alcoholism, with compounded deficits often observed in individuals comorbid for these conditions. Remote semantic memory processes, however, have only seldom been studied in these diagnostic groups. Examination of remote semantic memory could provide insight into the underlying processes associated with storage and retrieval of learned information over extended time periods while elucidating spared and impaired cognitive functions in these clinical groups.
Methods: We examined component processes of remote semantic memory in HIV infection and chronic alcoholism in 4 subject groups (HIV, ALC, HIV + ALC, and age-matched healthy adults) using a modified version of the Presidents Test. Free recall, recognition, and sequencing of presidential candidates and election dates were assessed. In addition, component processes of working, episodic, and semantic memory were assessed with ancillary cognitive tests.
Results: The comorbid group (HIV + ALC) was significantly impaired on sequencing of remote semantic information compared with age-matched healthy adults. Free recall of remote semantic information was also modestly impaired in the HIV + ALC group, but normal performance for recognition of this information was observed. Few differences were observed between the single diagnosis groups (HIV, ALC) and healthy adults, although examination of the component processes underlying remote semantic memory scores elicited differences between the HIV and ALC groups. Selective remote memory processes were related to lifetime alcohol consumption in the ALC group and to viral load and depression level in the HIV group. Hepatitis C diagnosis was associated with lower remote semantic memory scores in all 3 clinical groups. Education level did not account for group differences reported.
Conclusions: This study provides behavioral support for the existence of adverse effects associated with the comorbidity of HIV infection and chronic alcoholism on selective component processes of memory function, with untoward effects exacerbated by Hepatitis C infection. The pattern of remote semantic memory function in HIV + ALC is consistent with those observed in neurological conditions primarily affecting frontostriatal pathways and suggests that remote memory dysfunction in HIV + ALC may be a result of impaired retrieval processes rather than loss of remote semantic information per se.