INTRODUCTION: Growing evidence indicates that individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) manifest semantic deficits that are often more severe for items that are characterized by a unique semantic and lexical association, such as famous people and famous buildings, than common concepts, such as objects. However, it is still controversial whether the semantic deficits observed in MCI are determined by a degradation of semantic information or by a deficit in intentional access to semantic knowledge. Here we used a semantic priming task in order to assess the integrity of the semantic system without requiring explicit access to this system. This paradigm may provide new insights in clarifying the nature of the semantic deficits in MCI. METHODS: We assessed the semantic and repetition priming effect in 13 individuals with MCI and 13 age-matched controls who engaged in a familiarity judgment task of famous names. In the semantic priming condition, the prime was the name of a member of the same occupation category as the target (Tom Cruise-Brad Pitt), while in the repetition priming condition the prime was the same name as the target (Charlie Chaplin-Charlie Chaplin). RESULTS: The results showed a defective priming effect in MCI in the semantic but not in the repetition priming condition. Specifically, when compared to controls, MCI patients did not show a facilitation effect in responding to the same occupation prime-target pairs, but they showed an equivalent facilitation effect when the target was the same name as the prime. CONCLUSION: The present results provide support to the hypothesis that the semantic impairments observed in MCI cannot be uniquely ascribed to a deficit in intentional access to semantic information. Instead, these findings point to the semantic nature of these deficits and, in particular, to a degraded representation of semantic information concerning famous people.