Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Neural mechanisms underlying memory failure in older adults

Here is a fascinating bit of work from Stevens et al. When failing to encode information older, but not younger, adults show increased activity in brain regions mediating distraction. This continues the developing consensus that aging brains (as I woefully note for mine) have increasing difficulty ignoring distracting information that is irrelevant to the task at hand :
Older adults have reduced memory, primarily for recall, but also for recognition, particularly for unfamiliar faces. Behavioral studies have shown that age-related memory declines are due in part to distraction from impaired inhibition of task-irrelevant input during encoding. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to uncover the sources of memory deficits associated with aging. To date, this work has focused on successful encoding, while the neural correlates of unsuccessful encoding are unknown. Here, we provide novel evidence of a neural mechanism underlying memory failures exclusively affecting older adults. Whereas both younger and older adults showed reduced activation of brain regions important for encoding (e.g., hippocampus) during unsuccessful encoding, only older adults showed increased activity in brain regions mediating distraction (e.g., auditory cortex) and in left prefrontal cortex. Further, these regions were functionally connected with medial parietal areas, previously identified as default mode regions, which may reflect environmental monitoring. Our results suggest that increased distraction from task-irrelevant input (auditory in this case), associated with the unfamiliar and noisy fMRI environment, may increase environmental monitoring. This in turn could hinder suppression of default mode processing, resulting in memory failures in older adults. These findings provide novel evidence of a brain mechanism underlying the behavioral evidence that impaired inhibition of extraneous input during encoding leads to memory failure in older adults and may have implications for the ubiquitous use of fMRI for investigating neurocognitive aging.

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