Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Reward Speeds Up and Increases Consistency of Visual Selective Attention: A Lifespan Comparison

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Reward Speeds Up and Increases Consistency of Visual Selective Attention: A Lifespan Comparison

Article excerpt

Published online: 18 April 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Children and older adults often show less favorable reward-based learning and decision making, relative to younger adults. It is unknown, however, whether reward-based processes that influence relatively early perceptual and attentional processes show similar lifespan differences. In this study, we investigated whether stimulus-reward associations affect selective visual attention differently across the human lifespan. Children, adolescents, younger adults, and older adults performed a visual search task in which the target colors were associated with either high or low monetary rewards. We discovered that high reward value speeded up response times across all four age groups, indicating that reward modulates attentional selection across the lifespan. This speed-up in response time was largest in younger adults, relative to the other three age groups. Furthermore, only younger adults benefited from high reward value in increasing response consistency (i.e., reduction of trial-by-trial reaction time variability). Our findings suggest that reward-based modulations of relatively early and implicit perceptual and attentional processes are operative across the lifespan, and the effects appear to be greater in adulthood. The age-specific effect of reward on reducing intraindividual response variability in younger adults likely reflects mechanisms underlying the development and aging of reward processing, such as lifespan age differences in the efficacy of dopaminergic modulation. Overall, the present results indicate that reward shapes visual perception across different age groups by biasing attention to motivationally salient events.

Keywords Visual attention · Reward · Lifespan development


Monitoring and evaluating outcomes of actions (e.g., reward or benefit of an action or payoffs of a choice) is essential for adaptive behavior. A large body of work has demonstrated that organisms are sensitive to reward distributions in the environment (e.g., Montague, Dayan, Person, & Sejnowski, 1995; Shafir, Wiegmann, Smith, & Real, 1999)andthat reward guides learning, influences decision making, and directs action selection (Kurniawan, Guitart-Masip, & Dolan, 2011; Montague, Hyman, & Cohen, 2004;Niv& Schoenbaum, 2008). However, only recently has research started to address the question of whether reward already influences earlier and, presumably, more "automatic" perceptual and attentional orienting or alerting processes. Emerging evidence from this line of work indicates that reward can guide attention relatively early during visual processing, thereby affecting the perception and selection of visual stimuli in the environment (Anderson, Laurent, & Yantis, 2011;Della Libera & Chelazzi, 2006; Hickey, Chelazzi, & Theeuwes, 2010; Kiss, Driver, & Eimer, 2009;Raymond&O'Brien, 2009; Serences, 2008). These interactions between reward and early attentional processes may affect orienting behavior but may also play a critical role during foraging and economic decision making (Robertson, Watamura, & Wilbourn, 2013; Towal, Mormann, & Koch, 2013; Wolfe, 2013).

The mesolimbic and frontal-striatal dopaminergic pathways are critically involved in reward processing (Cools, 2011;D'Ardenne, McClure, Nystrom, & Cohen, 2008; Schultz, Dayan, & Montague, 1997; Tobler, Fiorillo, & Schultz, 2005). The efficacy of dopaminergic, as well as other catecholaminergic, neuromodulation undergoes maturation and senescence in the course of development across the lifespan. There is ample evidence for aging-related declines of pre- and postsynaptic markers of the dopamine system, which have negative consequences on a variety of cognitive functions in older adults (for reviews, see Bäckman Nyberg, Lindenberger, Li, & Farde, 2006; Li, Lindenberger, & Bäckman, 2010; for a neurocomputational integration, see Li, Lindenberger, & Sikström, 2001). …

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