BACKGROUND: The Seoul Verbal Learning Test (SVLT) is a relatively brief test of verbal learning and memory, which is used to examine dementia patients when a more comprehensive memory assessment is not feasible or when serial testing is desired. The aim of this study was to investigate the pattern of the SVLT performance and its usefulness in making a differential diagnosis between Alzheimer's disease (AD) and subcortical vascular dementia (SVD). METHODS: The SVLT was administered to 15 younger controls, 12 elderly controls, 84 probable AD and 53 SVD patients who met the DSM-IV criteria for dementia. In order to determine the difference of the SVLT parameters between AD and SVD according to the disease severity, the subjects were first grouped into mild dementia (CDR 1 or less) and advanced dementia (CDR2), then the parameters were compared. RESULTS: Pattern analysis of the SVLT performance in subjects with AD and SVD revealed that the mild AD subjects recalled fewer words in trial 2, had a lower discrimination index, a lower combination memory score and more recognition of semantically-unrelated distracter items. In advanced cases, with the exception of combination memory score, there were no differences between the groups in terms of the overall learning or the discrimination index. CONCLUSIONS: Although SVLT has limited differential diagnostic value in advanced cases, in mild cases, pattern analysis of the SVLT performance is a useful tool for discriminating mild AD from SVD. Therefore, a further clinical study should be promising.