The nature of the semantic memory deficit in dementia of the Alzheimer's type (DAT) was investigated in a semantic priming task which was designed to assess both automatic and attention-induced priming effects. Ten DAT patients and 10 age-matched control subjects completed a word naming semantic priming task in which both relatedness proportion (RP) and stimulus-onset asynchrony (SOA) were varied. A clear dissociation between automatic and attentional priming effects in both groups was demonstrated; however, the DAT subjects pattern of priming deviated significantly from that of the normal controls. The DAT patients failed to produce any priming under conditions which encouraged automatic semantic processing and produced facilitation only when the RP was high. In addition, the DAT group produced hyperpriming, with significantly larger facilitation effects than the control group. These results suggest an impairment of automatic spreading activation in DAT and have implications for theories of semantic memory impairment in DAT as well as models of normal priming. (C) 2001 Academic Press.