Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging: Linking Cognitive and Cerebral Aging

By Roberto Cabeza; Lars Nyberg et al. | Go to book overview

6
The Relationship Between Brain
Activity, Cognitive Performance,
and Aging
The Case of Memory

Michael D. Rugg

Alexa M. Morcom

As indexed by performance on a variety of different memory tasks, episodic memory (memory for unique events) declines quite markedly as a function of advancing age, even in individuals seemingly free from age-associated pathology. The question of how best to account for this decline in functional terms is a long-standing one (for review, see Light, 1991). In particular, it has been much debated whether the decline is attributable predominantly to a deficit in the initial encoding of information into memory or in its subsequent retrieval (e.g., Perfect, Williams, & Anderton-Brown, 1995; see also chapter 9). With the development of noninvasive methods for measuring task-related brain activity, the question whether the neural substrates of episodic memory vary with age has also become prominent.

In this chapter, we discuss some of the methodological issues that arise when using noninvasive measures of neural activity (specifically, functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI] and event-related potentials [ERPs]) to address these and related questions. The focus of the chapter is on how studies can be designed to identify age-related differences in brain activity associated with memory processes free from the influence of confounding variables that, by virtue of their correlation with age, might masquerade as differences inherent to the aging process. Whereas some of these variables are relevant to fMRI and ERP studies of aging in any cognitive domain, others are more specific to studies of episodic memory, and it is to these latter variables that we devote most attention.

As noted above, we focus here on the use of fMRI and ERPs to investigate the neural correlates of age-related changes in episodic memory. The signals detected by both methods appear predominantly to reflect—directly in the case of ERPs, indirectly in the case of fMRI—the aggregated postsynaptic activity of relatively

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