Aging specific

Fluctuating sense of control linked to cognitive ability in older adults

April, 2012

A small study has found that, in older adults, their sense of control fluctuates over the course of a day, and this affects their cognitive abilities.

Previous research has pointed to a typical decline in our sense of control as we get older. Maintaining a sense of control, however, appears to be a key factor in successful aging. Unsurprisingly, in view of the evidence that self-belief and metacognitive understanding are important for cognitive performance, a stronger sense of control is associated with better cognitive performance. (By metacognitive understanding I mean the knowledge that cognitive performance is malleable, not fixed, and strategies and training are effective in improving cognition.)

In an intriguing new study, 36 older adults (aged 61-87, average age 74) had their cognitive performance and their sense of control assessed every 12 hours for 60 days. Participants were asked questions about whether they felt in control of their lives and whether they felt able to achieve goals they set for themselves.

The reason I say this is intriguing is that it’s generally assumed that a person’s sense of control — how much they feel in control of their lives — is reasonably stable. While, as I said, it can change over the course of a lifetime, until recently we didn’t think that it could fluctuate significantly in the course of a single day — which is what this study found.

Moreover, those who normally reported having a low sense of control performed much better on inductive reasoning tests during periods when they reported feeling a higher sense of control. Similarly, those who normally reported feeling a high sense of control scored higher on memory tests when feeling more in control than usual.

Although we can’t be sure (since this wasn’t directly investigated), the analysis suggests that the improved cognitive functioning stems from the feeling of improved control, not vice versa.

The study builds on an earlier study that found weekly variability in older adults’ locus of control and competency beliefs.

Assessment was carried out in the form of a daily workbook, containing a number of measures, which participants completed twice daily. Each assessment took around 30-45 minutes to complete. The measures included three cognitive tests (14 alternate forms of each of these were used, to minimize test familiarity):

  • Letter series test: 30 items in which the next letter in a series had to be identified. [Inductive reasoning]
  • Number comparison: 48 items in which two number strings were presented beside each other, and participants had to identify where there was any mismatch. [Perceptual speed]
  • Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Task: participants have to study a list of 15 unrelated words for one minute, then on another page recall as many of the words as they could. [Memory]

Sense of control over the previous 12 hours was assessed by 8 questions, to which participants indicated their agreement/disagreement on a 6-point scale. Half the questions related to ‘locus of control’ and half to ‘perceived competence’.

While, unsurprisingly, compliance wasn’t perfect (it’s quite an arduous regime), participants completed on average 115 of 120 workbooks. Of the possible 4,320 results (36 x 120), only 166 were missing.

One of the things that often annoys me is the subsuming of all within-individual variability in cognitive scores into averages. Of course averages are vital, but so is variability, and this too often is glossed over. This study is, of course, all about variability, so I was very pleased to see people’s cognitive variability spelled out.

Most of the variance in locus of control was of course between people (86%), but 14% was within-individual. Similarly, the figures for perceived competence were 88% and 12%. (While locus of control and perceived competence are related, only 26% of the variability in within-person locus of control was associated with competence, meaning that they are largely independent.)

By comparison, within-individual variability was much greater for the cognitive measures: for the letter series (inductive reasoning), 32% was within-individual and 68% between-individual; for the number matching (perceptual speed), 21% was within-individual and 79% between-individual; for the memory test, an astounding 44% was within-individual and 56% between-individual.

Some of this within-individual variability in cognitive performance comes down to practice effects, which were significant for all cognitive measures. For the memory test, time of day was also significant, with performance being better in the morning. For the letter and number series tests, previous performance also had a small effect on perceived competence. For the number matching, increase in competence subsequent to increased performance was greatest for those with lower scores. However, lagged analyses indicated that beliefs preceded performance to a greater extent than performance preceding beliefs.

While it wasn’t an aspect of this study, it should also be noted that a person’s sense of control may well vary according to domain (e.g., cognition, social interaction, health) and context. In this regard, it’s interesting to note the present findings that sense of control affected inductive reasoning for low-control individuals, but memory for high-control individuals, suggesting that the cognitive domain also matters.

Now this small study was a preliminary one and there are several limitations that need to be tightened up in subsequent research, but I think it’s important for three reasons:

  • as a demonstration that cognitive performance is not a fixed attribute;
  • as a demonstration of the various factors that can affect older adults’ cognitive performance;
  • as a demonstration that your beliefs about yourself are a factor in your cognitive performance.

Reference: 

[2794] Neupert, S. D., & Allaire J. C.
(2012).  I think I can, I think I can: Examining the within-person coupling of control beliefs and cognition in older adults.
Psychology and Aging. No Pagination Specified - No Pagination Specified.

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Which 'Senior moments' may signal mental decline

October, 2011

A very large survey of older women indicates which type of memory difficulties may signal age-related cognitive impairment possibly leading to dementia.

A telephone survey of around 17,000 older women (average age 74), which included questions about memory lapses plus standard cognitive tests, found that getting lost in familiar neighborhoods was highly associated with cognitive impairment that might indicate Alzheimer’s. Having trouble keeping up with a group conversation and difficulty following instructions were also significantly associated with cognitive impairment. But, as most of us will be relieved to know, forgetting things from one moment to the next was not associated with impairment!

Unsurprisingly, the more memory complaints a woman had, the more likely she was to score poorly on the cognitive test.

The 7 memory lapse questions covered:

  • whether they had recently experienced a change in their ability to remember things,
  • whether they had trouble remembering a short list of items (such as a shopping list),
  • whether they had trouble remembering recent events,
  • whether they had trouble remembering things from one second to the next,
  • whether they had difficulty following spoken or written instructions,
  • whether they had more trouble than usual following a group conversation or TV program due to memory problems,
  • whether they had trouble finding their way around familiar streets.

Because this survey was limited to telephone tests, we can’t draw any firm conclusions. But the findings may be helpful for doctors and others, to know which sort of memory complaints should be taken as a flag for further investigation.

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Possible treatment for working memory decline with age

September, 2011

A study has successfully countered reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex seen in older monkeys. Clinical trials are now investigating whether the drug can improve working memory in older humans.

A study comparing activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in young, middle-aged and aged macaque monkeys as they performed a spatial working memory task has found that while neurons of the young monkeys maintained a high rate of firing during the task, neurons in older animals showed slower firing rates. The decline began in middle age.

Neuron activity was recorded in a particular area of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that is most important for visuospatial working memory. Some neurons only fired when the cue was presented (28 CUE cells), but most were active during the delay period as well as the cue and response periods (273 DELAY neurons). Persistent firing during the delay period is of particular interest, as it is required to maintain information in working memory. Many DELAY neurons increased their activity when the preferred spatial location was being remembered.

While the activity of the CUE cells was unaffected by age, that of DELAY cells was significantly reduced. This was true both of spontaneous activity and task-related activity. Moreover, the reduction was greatest during the cue and delay periods for the preferred direction, meaning that the effect of age was to reduce the ability to distinguish preferred and non-preferred directions.

It appeared that the aging prefrontal cortex was accumulating excessive levels of an important signaling molecule called cAMP. When cAMP was inhibited or cAMP-sensitive ion channels were blocked, firing rates rose to more youthful levels. On the other hand, when cAMP was stimulated, aged neurons reduced their activity even more.

The findings are consistent with rat research that has found two of the agents used — guanfacine and Rp-cAMPS — can improve working memory in aged rats. Guanfacine is a medication that is already approved for treating hypertension in adults and prefrontal deficits in children. A clinical trial testing guanfacine's ability to improve working memory and executive functions in elderly subjects who do not have dementia is now taking place.

Reference: 

[2349] Wang, M., Gamo N. J., Yang Y., Jin L. E., Wang X-J., Laubach M., et al.
(2011).  Neuronal basis of age-related working memory decline.
Nature. advance online publication,

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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.

Reference: 

[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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