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Age Effects on Load-Dependent Brain Activations in Working Memory for Novel Material

Holtzer, Roee; Rakitin, Brian C.; Steffener, Jason; Flynn, Joseph; Kumar, Arjun; Stern, Yaakov

Three competing models of cognitive aging (neural compensation, capacity limitations, neural inefficiency) were examined in relation to working memory for novel non-verbal material. To accomplish this goal young (n = 25) and old (n = 25) participants performed a delayed item recognition (DIR) task while being scanned with bold fMRI. The stimuli in the DIR task consisted of computer-generated closed-curve shapes with each shape presented only once in the testing conditions of each participant. This ensured that both the novelty and appearance of the shapes maximized visual demands and limited the extent of phonologic processing. Behaviorally, as expected, the old participants were slower and less accurate compared to the young participants. Spatial patterns of brain activation that corresponded to load-dependent (stimulus set size ranged from 1 to 3) fMRI signal during the three phases of the DIR task (memory set presentation, retention delay, probe presentation) were evaluated in both age groups. Support for neural compensation and capacity limitation was evident in retention delay and the probe phase, respectively. Data were inconsistent with the neural inefficiency model. The process specific support for the theories we examined is consistent with a large corpus of research showing that the substrates underlying the encoding, retention and probe phases are different. That is, cognitive aging theories can be specific to the neural networks/regions underlying the different phases of working memory. Delineating how these theories work in concert can increase knowledge of age-related effects on working memory.


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February 22, 2018