Aging specific

Older people find it harder to see the wood for the trees

September, 2011

A study indicates that difficulty in seeing the whole, vs elements of the whole, is associated with impairment in perceptual grouping, and this is more common with age.

A standard test of how we perceive local vs global features of visual objects uses Navon figures — large letters made up of smaller ones (see below for an example). As in the Stroop test when colors and color words disagree (RED), the viewer can focus either on the large letter or the smaller ones. When the viewer is faster at seeing the larger letter, they are said to be showing global precedence; when they’re faster at seeing the component letters, they are said to be showing local precedence. Typically, the greater the number of component letters, the easier it is to see the larger letter. This is consistent with the Gestalt principles of proximity and continuity — elements that are close together and form smooth lines will tend to be perceptually grouped together and seen as a unit (the greater the number of component letters, the closer they will be, and the smoother the line).

In previous research, older adults have often demonstrated local precedence rather than global, although the results have been inconsistent. One earlier study found that older adults performed poorly when asked to report in which direction (horizontal or vertical) dots formed smooth lines, suggesting an age-related decline in perceptual grouping. The present study therefore investigated whether this decline was behind the decrease in global precedence.

In the study 20 young men (average age 22) and 20 older men (average age 57) were shown Navon figures and asked whether the target letter formed the large letter or the smaller letters (e.g., “Is the big or the small letter an E?”). The number of component letters was systematically varied across five quantities. Under such circumstances it is expected that at a certain level of letter density everyone will switch to global precedence, but if a person is impaired at perceptual grouping, this will occur at a higher level of density.

The young men were, unsurprisingly, markedly faster than the older men in their responses. They were also significantly faster at responding when the target was the global letter, compared to when it was the local letter (i.e. they showed global precedence). The older adults, on the other hand, had equal reaction times to global and local targets. Moreover, they showed no improvement as the letter-density increased (unlike the young men).

It is noteworthy that the older men, while they failed to show global precedence, also failed to show local precedence (remember that results are based on group averages; this suggests that the group was evenly balanced between those showing local precedence and those showing global precedence). Interestingly, previous research has suggested that women are more likely to show local precedence.

The link between perceptual grouping and global precedence is further supported by individual differences — older men who were insensitive to changes in letter-density were almost exclusively the ones that showed persistent local precedence. Indeed, increases in letter-density were sometimes counter-productive for these men, leading to even slower reaction times for global targets. This may be the result of greater distractor interference, to which older adults are more vulnerable, and to which this sub-group of older men may have been especially susceptible.

Example of a Navon figure:

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Why it gets harder to remember as we get older

June, 2011

A new study finds that older adults have more difficulty in recognizing new information as ‘new’, and this is linked to degradation of the path leading into the hippocampus.

As we get older, when we suffer memory problems, we often laughingly talk about our brain being ‘full up’, with no room for more information. A new study suggests that in some sense (but not the direct one!) that’s true.

To make new memories, we need to recognize that they are new memories. That means we need to be able to distinguish between events, or objects, or people. We need to distinguish between them and representations already in our database.

We are all familiar with the experience of wondering if we’ve done something. Is it that we remember ourselves doing it today, or are we remembering a previous occasion? We go looking for the car in the wrong place because the memory of an earlier occasion has taken precedence over today’s event. As we age, we do get much more of this interference from older memories.

In a new study, the brains of 40 college students and older adults (60-80) were scanned while they viewed pictures of everyday objects and classified them as either "indoor" or "outdoor." Some of the pictures were similar but not identical, and others were very different. It was found that while the hippocampus of young students treated all the similar pictures as new, the hippocampus of older adults had more difficulty with this, requiring much more distinctiveness for a picture to be classified as new.

Later, the participants were presented with completely new pictures to classify, and then, only a few minutes later, shown another set of pictures and asked whether each item was "old," "new" or "similar." Older adults tended to have fewer 'similar' responses and more 'old' responses instead, indicating that they could not distinguish between similar items.

The inability to recognize information as "similar" to something seen recently is associated with “representational rigidity” in two areas of the hippocampus: the dentate gyrus and CA3 region. The brain scans from this study confirm this, and find that this rigidity is associated with changes in the dendrites of neurons in the dentate/CA3 areas, and impaired integrity of the perforant pathway — the main input path into the hippocampus, from the entorhinal cortex. The more degraded the pathway, the less likely the hippocampus is to store similar memories as distinct from old memories.

Apart from helping us understand the mechanisms of age-related cognitive decline, the findings also have implications for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. The hippocampus is one of the first brain regions to be affected by the disease. The researchers plan to conduct clinical trials in early Alzheimer's disease patients to investigate the effect of a drug on hippocampal function and pathway integrity.

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Individual differences in learning motor skills reflect brain chemical

April, 2011

An imaging study demonstrates that people who are quicker at learning a sequence of finger movements have lower levels of the inhibitory chemical GABA.

What makes one person so much better than another in picking up a new motor skill, like playing the piano or driving or typing? Brain imaging research has now revealed that one of the reasons appears to lie in the production of a brain chemical called GABA, which inhibits neurons from responding.

The responsiveness of some brains to a procedure that decreases GABA levels (tDCS) correlated both with greater brain activity in the motor cortex and with faster learning of a sequence of finger movements. Additionally, those with higher GABA concentrations at the beginning tended to have slower reaction times and less brain activation during learning.

It’s simplistic to say that low GABA is good, however! GABA is a vital chemical. Interestingly, though, low GABA has been associated with stress — and of course, stress is associated with faster reaction times and relaxation with slower ones. The point is, we need it in just the right levels, and what’s ‘right’ depends on context. Which brings us back to ‘responsiveness’ — more important than actual level, is the ability of your brain to alter how much GABA it produces, in particular places, at particular times.

However, baseline levels are important, especially where something has gone wrong. GABA levels can change after brain injury, and also may decline with age. The findings support the idea that treatments designed to influence GABA levels might improve learning. Indeed, tDCS is already in use as a tool for motor rehabilitation in stroke patients — now we have an idea why it works.

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[2202] Stagg, C J.., Bachtiar V., & Johansen-Berg H.
(2011).  The Role of GABA in Human Motor Learning.
Current Biology. 21(6), 480 - 484.

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Why multitasking is more difficult with age

April, 2011

A new study reveals that older adults’ greater problems with multitasking stem from their impaired ability to disengage from an interrupting task and restore the original task.

Comparison of young adults (mean age 24.5) and older adults (mean age 69.1) in a visual memory test involving multitasking has pinpointed the greater problems older adults have with multitasking. The study involved participants viewing a natural scene and maintaining it in mind for 14.4 seconds. In the middle of the maintenance period, an image of a face popped up and participants were asked to determine its sex and age. They were then asked to recall the original scene.

As expected, older people had more difficulty with this. Brain scans revealed that, for both groups, the interruption caused their brains to disengage from the network maintaining the memory and reallocate resources to processing the face. But the younger adults had no trouble disengaging from that task as soon as it was completed and re-establishing connection with the memory maintenance network, while the older adults failed both to disengage from the interruption and to reestablish the network associated with the disrupted memory.

This finding adds to the evidence that an important (perhaps the most important) reason for cognitive decline in older adults is a growing inability to inhibit processing, and extends the processes to which that applies.

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Older adults have better implicit memory

April, 2011

A new study further confirms the idea that a growing inability to ignore irrelevancies is behind age-related cognitive decline.

A study involving 125 younger (average age 19) and older (average age 69) adults has revealed that while younger adults showed better explicit learning, older adults were better at implicit learning. Implicit memory is our unconscious memory, which influences behavior without our awareness.

In the study, participants pressed buttons in response to the colors of words and random letter strings — only the colors were relevant, not the words themselves. They then completed word fragments. In one condition, they were told to use words from the earlier color task to complete the fragments (a test of explicit memory); in the other, this task wasn’t mentioned (a test of implicit memory).

Older adults showed better implicit than explicit memory and better implicit memory than the younger, while the reverse was true for the younger adults. However, on a further test which required younger participants to engage in a number task simultaneously with the color task, younger adults behaved like older ones.

The findings indicate that shallower and less focused processing goes on during multitasking, and (but not inevitably!) with age. The fact that younger adults behaved like older ones when distracted points to the problem, for which we now have quite a body of evidence: with age, we tend to become more easily distracted.

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Memory problems may be more about interference than forgetting

February, 2011

An animal study points to confusion between memories being central to amnesia, rather than a failure to recall.

We have thought of memory problems principally in terms of forgetting, but using a new experimental method with amnesic animals has revealed that confusion between memories, rather than loss of memory, may be more important.

While previous research has found that amnesic animals couldn't distinguish between a new and an old object, the new method allows responses to new and old objects to be measured separately. Control animals, shown an object and then shown either the same or another object an hour later, spent more time (as expected) with the new object. However, amnesic animals spent less time with the new object, indicating they had some (false) memory of it.

The researchers concluded that the memory problems were the result of the brain's inability to register complete memories of the objects, and that the remaining, less detailed memories were more easily confused. In other words, it’s about poor encoding, not poor retrieval.

Excitingly, when the amnesic animals were put in a dark, quiet space before the memory test, they performed perfectly on the test.

The finding not only points to a new approach for helping those with memory problems (for example, emphasizing differentiating details), but also demonstrates how detrimental interference from other things can be when we are trying to remember something — an issue of particular relevance in modern information-rich environments. The extent to which these findings apply to other memory problems, such as dementia, remains to be seen.

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Why older adults remember the good times better

March, 2010

An imaging study has found differences in brain activity that explain why older adults are better at remembering positive events.

An imaging study reveals why older adults are better at remembering positive events. The study, involving young adults (ages 19-31) and older adults (ages 61-80) being shown a series of photographs with positive and negative themes, found that while there was no difference in brain activity patterns between the age groups for the negative photos, there were age differences for the positive photos. In older adult brains, but not the younger, two emotion-processing regions (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala) strongly influenced the memory-encoding hippocampus.

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