loss of inhibition in old age
One important reason for the greater cognitive problems commonly experienced as we age, is our increasing difficulty in ignoring distracting and irrelevant information. But it may be that in some circumstances that propensity can be used to help memory.
The study involved 25 younger (17-23) and 32 older adults (60-86), who were shown the faces and names of 24 different people and told to learn them. The names were written in bright blue text and placed on the forehead, and each photo was shown for 3 seconds. After the learning session, participants were immediately tested on their recall of the name for each face. The test was self-paced. Following a 10 minute interval, during which they were given psychological tests, they were shown more photos of faces, but this time were told to ignore the text — their task was to push a button when they saw the same face appear twice in a row. The text was varied: sometimes names, sometimes words, and sometimes nonwords. Ten of the same faces and names from the first task were repeated in the series of 108 trials; all items were repeated three times (thus, 30 repeated face-name pairs; 30 other face-name pairs; 24 face-word pairs; 24 face-nonword pairs). The photos were each displayed for 1.5 seconds. A delayed memory test was given after another 10 minutes of psychological testing. A cued-recall test was followed by a forced-choice recognition test.
Unsurprisingly, overall younger adults remembered more names than older adults, and both groups remembered more on the second series, with younger adults improving more. But younger adults showed no benefit for the repeated face-name pairs, while — on the delayed recall task only — older adults did.
Interestingly, there was no sign, in either group, of repeated names being falsely recalled or recognized. Nor did they significantly affect familiarity.
It seems that this sort of inadvertent repetition doesn’t improve memory for items (faces, names), but, specifically, the face-name associations. The study builds on previous research indicating that older adults hyperbind distracting names and attended faces, which produces better learning of these face-name pairs.
It’s suggested that repetition as distraction might act as a sort of covert retrieval practice that relies on a nonconscious process specifically related to the priming of relational associations. Perhaps older adults’ vulnerability to distraction is not simply a sign of degeneration, but reflects a change of strategy to one that increases receptiveness to environmental regularities that have predictive value. Younger adults have narrowed attention that, while it allows them greater focus on the task, also stops them noticing information that is immediately irrelevant but helpful further down the track.
The researchers are working on a training program to help older adults with MCI use this benefit to better remember faces and names.
Biss, Renée K., Rowe, Gillian, Weeks, Jennifer C., Hasher, Lynn, Murphy, Kelly J. 2018. Leveraging older adults’ susceptibility to distraction to improve memory for face-name associations. Psychology and Aging, 33(1), 158-164.
Research using data from a population-based birth cohort from Rotterdam, in The Netherlands, has found that children exposed to higher levels of air pollution when they were in womb had significantly thinner cortex in several brain regions. Some of this appeared to be related to impaired inhibitory control.
The study involved 783 children aged 6 to 10, who were given brain imaging and cognitive tests. Levels of air pollution in the mother’s environment during pregnancy were estimated using a standardized procedure. Mean fine particle levels were 20.2 μg/m3, and nitrogen dioxide levels were 39.3μg/m3. Note that the EU limit for mean fine particles is actually above that (25μg/m3), while the NO2 level is at the EU limit (40μg/m3), with 45% of the Dutch population experiencing higher levels. The World Health Organization sets a much lower level for fine particles: 10 μg/m3.
Children whose mothers were smokers were excluded from the study, as were children from areas where pollution measures weren’t available. Children included tended to be from a higher socio-economic position compared to those not included. Moreover, children with ADHD, or developmental or behavioral problems, were also excluded.
Global brain volume was not affected by fetal exposure. However, several brain regions showed significantly thinner cortex — in particular, the precuneus and rostral middle frontal regions, which partially accounted for the observed association between fetal exposure to fine particles and impaired inhibitory control (the ability to control your own behavior, especially impulsive behavior). This sort of cognitive impairment at early ages could have significant long-term consequences in academic achievement, later career success, and even in risk of mental disorders.
The findings are consistent with other studies linking acceptable air pollution levels with problems including cognitive impairment and child development.
 Guxens M, Lubczyńska MJ, Muetzel RL, Dalmau-Bueno A, Jaddoe VWV, Hoek G, van der Lugt A, Verhulst FC, White T, Brunekreef B, et al. Air Pollution Exposure During Fetal Life, Brain Morphology, and Cognitive Function in School-Age Children. Biological Psychiatry [Internet]. 2018 . Available from: https://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(18)30064-7/fulltext
The root of age-related cognitive decline may lie in a reduced ability to ignore distractors. A new study indicates that older adults put more effort into focusing during encoding, in order to compensate for a reduced ability to hold information in working memory. The finding suggests a multi-pronged approach to improving cognitive ability in older adults.
I've reported before on the idea that the drop in working memory capacity commonly seen in old age is related to the equally typical increase in distractability. Studies of brain activity have also indicated that lower WMC is correlated with greater storage of distractor information. So those with higher WMC, it's thought, are better at filtering out distraction and focusing only on the pertinent information. Older adults may show a reduced WMC, therefore, because their ability to ignore distraction and irrelevancies has declined.
Why does that happen?
A new, large-scale study using a smartphone game suggests that the root cause is a change in the way we hold items in working memory.
The study involved 29,631 people aged 18—69, who played a smartphone game in which they had to remember the positions of an increasing number of red circles. Yellow circles, which had to be ignored, could also appear — either at the same time as the red circles, or after them. Data from this game revealed both WMC (how many red circle locations the individual could remember), and distractability (how many red circle locations they could remember in the face of irrelevant yellow circles).
Now this game isn't simply a way of measuring WMC. It enables us to make an interesting distinction based on the timing of the distraction. If the yellow circles appeared at the same time as the red ones, they are providing distraction when you are trying to encode the information. If they appear afterward, the distraction occurs when you are trying to maintain the information in working memory.
Now it would seem commonsensical that distraction at the time of encoding must be the main problem, but the fascinating finding of this study is that it was distraction during the delay (while the information is being maintained in working memory) that was the greater problem. And it was this distraction that became more and more marked with increasing age.
The study is a follow-up to a smaller 2014 study that included two experiments: a lab experiment involving 21 young adults, and data from the same smartphone game involving only the younger cohort (18-29 years; 3247 participants).
This study demonstrated that distraction during encoding and distraction during delay were independent contributory factors to WMC, suggesting that separate mechanisms are involved in filtering out distraction at encoding and maintenance.
Interestingly, analysis of the data from the smartphone game did indicate some correlation between the two in that context. One reason may be that participants in the smartphone game were exposed to higher load trials (the lab study kept WM load constant); another might be that they were in more distracting environments.
While in general researchers have till now assumed that the two processes are not distinct, it has been theorized that distractor filtering at encoding may involve a 'selective gating mechanism', while filtering during WM maintenance may involve a shutting down of perception. The former has been linked to a gating mechanism in the striatum in the basal ganglia, while the latter has been linked to an increase in alpha waves in the frontal cortex, specifically, the left middle frontal gyrus. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex may also be involved in distractor filtering at encoding.
To return to the more recent study:
All of this suggests that older adults are focusing more attention during attention even when there is no distraction, and they are doing so to compensate for their reduced ability to maintain information in working memory.
This suggests several approaches to improving older adults' ability to cope:
You can participate in the game yourself, at http://thegreatbrainexperiment.com/
 McNab F, Zeidman P, Rutledge RB, Smittenaar P, Brown HR, Adams RA, Dolan RJ. Age-related changes in working memory and the ability to ignore distraction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2015 ;112(20):6515 - 6518. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/112/20/6515
McNab, F., & Dolan, R. J. (2014). Dissociating distractor-filtering at encoding and during maintenance. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance, 40(3), 960–7. doi:10.1037/a0036013
Here’s another study demonstrating that older adults aren't able to filter out distracting information as well as younger adults. The imaging study compared face recognition performance in younger adults (average age 26) and older (average age 70). It was found that, for both groups, difficulties encoding a new face were marked by decreased activity in the hippocampus. But older brains also showed increased activation in the auditory cortex, left prefrontal cortex and medial parietal cortex, showing that they were processing too much irrelevant information from their external environment – the notoriously loud noise of the scanner. Apart from confirming the distractibility of the older brain, the finding also raises questions about imaging studies in general, for older adults. It’s likely that older adults’ cognitive performance have been systematically underestimated.
 Stevens DW, Hasher L, Chiew KS, Grady CL. A Neural Mechanism Underlying Memory Failure in Older Adults. J. Neurosci. [Internet]. 2008 ;28(48):12820 - 12824. Available from: http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/abstract/28/48/12820
Increasing research in recent years has concluded that one of the problems for the aging brain is a diminished ability to ignore irrelevant information. In fact, many believe it is the major problem for the healthy aging brain. Others believe, more traditionally, that the main problem is a decline in processing speed. A new study shows that both of these happen — in tandem. The difficulty in suppressing irrelevant information occurs because the processing of that irrelevant information has slowed down. This slowdown, at least in visual memory, seems to occur only in the first 200 milliseconds of visual processing, and the difficulty in suppressing irrelevant information occurs only during this period. This suppression failure is thought to impact on working memory.
 Gazzaley A, Clapp W, Kelley J, McEvoy K, Knight RT, D'Esposito M. Age-related top-down suppression deficit in the early stages of cortical visual memory processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2008 ;105(35):13122 - 13126. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/105/35/13122.abstract
A number of recent studies have made it clear that as we age, we find it harder to block out unwanted distractions. A new study used a new brain imaging technique known as EROS to determine whether this is due to faster sensory memory decay or to inefficient filtering of irrelevant sensory information. The study involved 16 young and 16 older participants who read a book of their choice while distracting tones played in the background. The volume of the tones was adjusted so that all the participants heard them at the same level, and the tones were emitted in groups of fives. The young participants showed brain activity in the auditory cortex in response to the first tone in each sequence only, but the older adults' brains responded to all five. The finding supports the view that the growing difficulty at blocking out distractions is due to inefficient filtering of irrelevant sensory information , not faster sensory memory decay.
 Fabiani M, Low KA, Wee E, Sable JJ, Gratton G. Reduced Suppression or Labile Memory? Mechanisms of Inefficient Filtering of Irrelevant Information in Older Adults. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience [Internet]. 2006 ;18(4):637 - 650. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/jocn.2006.18.4.637
We know older adults find it harder to filter out irrelevant information. Now a study looking at brain function in young, middle-aged and older adults has identified changes in brain activity that begin gradually in middle age which may explain why. In younger adults, activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with tasks that require concentration, such as reading) normally increases during the task, while activity in the medial frontal and parietal regions (associated with non-task related activity in a resting state, such as thinking about yourself, what you did last night, monitoring what's going on around you) normally decreases. In middle age (40-60 years), this pattern begins to break down during performance of memory tasks, although performance is not affected (but most of the participants were fairly well educated, so the finding of brain changes without accompanying behavioural changes in the middle-aged group may reflect the "protective effect" of education). Activity in the medial frontal and parietal regions stays turned on while activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreases. The imbalance becomes more pronounced in older adults (65+), suggesting there is a gradual, age-related reduction in the ability to suspend non-task-related or "default-mode" activity and engage areas for carrying out memory tasks.
 Grady CL, Springer MV, Hongwanishkul D, McIntosh AR, Winocur G. Age-related Changes in Brain Activity across the Adult Lifespan. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience [Internet]. 2006 ;18(2):227 - 241. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/jocn.2006.18.2.227
It’s been established that one of the reasons why older adults may do less well on cognitive tasks is because they have greater difficulty in ignoring distractions, which impairs their concentration. But not all older people are afflicted by this. Some are as focused as young adults. An imaging study has now revealed a difference between the brains of those people who are good at focusing, and those who are poor. Those who have difficulty screening out distractions have less white matter in the frontal lobes. They activated neurons in the left frontal lobe as well as the right. Young people and high-functioning older adults tended to use only the right frontal lobe.
 Colcombe SJ, Kramer AF, Erickson KI, Scalf P. The implications of cortical recruitment and brain morphology for individual differences in inhibitory function in aging humans. Psychology and Aging [Internet]. 2005 ;20(3):363 - 375. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16248697
We know that older adults often have short-term memory problems, and this has been linked to problems with attention. An imaging study now provides evidence that these short-term memory problems are associated with an inability to filter out surrounding distractions, rather than problems with focusing attention. It’s been suggested that an inability to ignore distracting information may indeed be at the heart of many of the cognitive problems that accompany aging. It should be noted that this is not an inevitable effect of age — in the study, 6 of the 16 older adults involved had no problems with short-term memory or attention.
 Gazzaley A, Cooney JW, Rissman J, D'Esposito M. Top-down suppression deficit underlies working memory impairment in normal aging. Nat Neurosci [Internet]. 2005 ;8(10):1298 - 1300. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nn1543
A study of younger and older adults indicates that memory search tends to decline with age because, with reduced cognitive control, seniors’ minds tend to ‘flit’ too quickly from one information cluster to another.
Evidence is accumulating that age-related cognitive decline is rooted in three related factors: processing speed slows down (because of myelin degradation); the ability to inhibit distractions becomes impaired; working memory capacity is reduced.
A new study adds to this evidence by looking at one particular aspect of age-related cognitive decline: memory search.
The study put 185 adults aged 29-99 (average age 67) through three cognitive tests: a vocabulary test, digit span (a working memory test), and the animal fluency test, in which you name as many animals as you can in one minute.
Typically, in the animal fluency test, people move through semantic categories such as ‘pets’, ‘big cats’, and so on. The best performers are those who move from category to category with optimal timing — i.e., at the point where the category has been sufficiently exhausted that efforts would be better spent on a new one.
Participants recalled on average 17 animal names, with a range from 5 to 33. While there was a decline with age, it wasn’t particularly marked until the 80s (an average of 18.3 for those in their 30s, 17.5 for those in their 60s, 16.5 for the 70s, 12.8 for the 80s, and 10 for the 90s). Digit span did show a decline, but it was not significant (from 17.5 down to 15.3), while vocabulary (consistent with previous research) showed no decline with age.
But all this is by the by — the nub of the experiment was to discover how individuals were searching their memory. This required a quite complicated analysis, which I will not go into, except to mention two important distinctions. The first is between:
A further distinction was made between static and dynamic processes: in dynamic models, it is assumed the user switches between local and global search. This, it is further assumed, is because memory is ‘patchy’ – that is, information is represented in clusters. Within a cluster, we use local cues, but to move from one cluster to another, we use global cues.
The point of all this was to determine whether age-related decline in memory search has to do with:
By modeling the exact recall patterns, the researchers ascertained that the recall process is indeed dynamic, although the points of transition are not clearly understood. The number of transitions from one cluster to another was negatively correlated with age; it was also strongly positively correlated with performance (number of items recalled). Digit span, assumed to measure ‘cognitive control’, was also negatively correlated with number of transitions, but, as I said, was not significantly correlated with age.
In other words, it appears that there is a qualitative change with age, that increasing age is correlated with increased switching, and reduced cognitive control is behind this — although it doesn’t explain it all (perhaps because we’re still not able to fully measure cognitive control).
At a practical level, the message is that memory search may become less efficient because, as people age, they tend to change categories too frequently, before they have exhausted their full potential. While this may well be a consequence of reduced cognitive control, it seems likely (to me at least) that making a deliberate effort to fight the tendency to move on too quickly will pay dividends for older adults who want to improve their memory retrieval abilities.
Nor is this restricted to older adults — since age appears to be primarily affecting performance through its effects on cognitive control, it is likely that this applies to those with reduced working memory capacity, of any age.
 Hills TT, Mata R, Wilke A, Samanez-Larkin GR. Mechanisms of Age-Related Decline in Memory Search Across the Adult Life Span. Developmental Psychology. 2013 :No - Pagination Specified.
Impairment in executive function is apparently far more common in those with MCI than previously thought, with the most common and severe impairment occurring in inhibitory control.
Providing some support for the finding I recently reported — that problems with semantic knowledge in those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s might be rooted in an inability to inhibit immediate perceptual information in favor of conceptual information — a small study has found that executive function (and inhibitory control in particular) is impaired in far more of those with MCI than was previously thought.
The study involved 40 patients with amnestic MCI (single or multiple domain) and 32 healthy older adults. Executive function was tested across multiple sub-domains: divided attention, working memory, inhibitory control, verbal fluency, and planning.
As a group, those with MCI performed significantly more poorly in all 5 sub-domains. All MCI patients showed significant impairment in at least one sub-domain of executive functioning, with almost half performing poorly on all of the tests. The sub-domain most frequently and severely impaired was inhibitory control.
The finding is in sharp contrast with standard screening tests and clinical interviews, which have estimated executive function impairment in only 15% of those with MCI.
Executive function is crucial for many aspects of our behavior, from planning and organization to self-control to (as we saw in the previous news report) basic knowledge. It is increasingly believed that inhibitory control might be a principal cause of age-related cognitive decline, through its effect on working memory.
All this adds weight to the idea that we should be focusing our attention on ways to improve inhibitory control when it declines. Although training to improve working memory capacity has not been very successful, specific training targeted at inhibitory control might have more luck. Something to hope for!
 Johns EK, Phillips NA, Belleville S, Goupil D, Babins L, Kelner N, Ska B, Gilbert B, Massoud F, de Boysson C, et al. The Profile of Executive Functioning in Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment: Disproportionate Deficits in Inhibitory Control. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. 2012 ;FirstView:1 - 15.
A study finds early semantic problems in those with MCI, correlating with a reduced capacity to carry out everyday tasks.
A small study shows how those on the road to Alzheimer’s show early semantic problems long before memory problems arise, and that such problems can affect daily life.
The study compared 25 patients with amnestic MCI, 27 patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's and 70 cognitively fit older adults (aged 55-90), on a non-verbal task involving size differences (for example, “What is bigger: a key or a house?”; “What is bigger: a key or an ant?”). The comparisons were presented in three different ways: as words; as images reflecting real-world differences; as incongruent images (e.g., a big ant and a small house).
Both those with MCI and those with AD were significantly less accurate, and significantly slower, in all three conditions compared to healthy controls, and they had disproportionately more difficulty on those comparisons where the size distance was smaller. But MCI and AD patients experienced their biggest problems when the images were incongruent – the ant bigger than the house. Those with MCI performed at a level between that of healthy controls and those with AD.
This suggests that perceptual information is having undue influence in a judgment task that requires conceptual knowledge.
Because semantic memory is organized according to relatedness, and because this sort of basic information has been acquired a long time ago, this simple test is quite a good way to test semantic knowledge. As previous research has indicated, the problem doesn’t seem to be a memory (retrieval) one, but one reflecting an actual loss or corruption of semantic knowledge. But perhaps, rather than a loss of data, it reflects a failure of selective attention/inhibition — an inability to inhibit immediate perceptual information in favor of more relevant conceptual information.
How much does this matter? Poor performance on the semantic distance task correlated with impaired ability to perform everyday tasks, accounting (together with delayed recall) for some 35% of the variance in scores on this task — while other cognitive abilities such as processing speed, executive function, verbal fluency, naming, did not have a significant effect. Everyday functional capacity was assessed using a short form of the UCSD Skills Performance Assessment scale (a tool generally used to identify everyday problems in patients with schizophrenia), which presents scenarios such as planning a trip to the beach, determining a route, dialing a telephone number, and writing a check.
The finding indicates that semantic memory problems are starting to occur early in the deterioration, and may be affecting general cognitive decline. However, if the problems reflect an access difficulty rather than data loss, it may be possible to strengthen these semantic processing connections through training — and thus improve general cognitive processing (and ability to perform everyday tasks).
 Kirchberg BC, Cohen JR, Adelsky MB, Buthorn JJ, Gomar JJ, Gordon M, Koppel J, Christen E, Conejero-Goldberg C, Davies P, et al. Semantic Distance Abnormalities in Mild Cognitive Impairment: Their Nature and Relationship to Function. American Journal of Psychiatry [Internet]. 2012 ;169(12):1275 - 1283. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2012.12030383
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.
 Gopie N, Craik FIM, Hasher L. A Double Dissociation of Implicit and Explicit Memory in Younger and Older Adults. Psychological Science [Internet]. 2011 . Available from: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/03/17/0956797611403321.abstract
A new study adds to the evidence that our ability to focus on one thing and ignore irrelevant information gets worse with age, and that this may be a crucial factor in age-related cognitive impairment.
A study involving young (average age 22) and older adults (average age 77) showed participants pictures of overlapping faces and places (houses and buildings) and asked them to identify the gender of the person. While the young adults showed activity in the brain region for processing faces (fusiform face area) but not in the brain region for processing places (parahippocampal place area), both regions were active in the older adults. Additionally, on a surprise memory test 10 minutes later, older adults who showed greater activation in the place area were more likely to recognize what face was originally paired with what house.
These findings confirm earlier research showing that older adults become less capable of ignoring irrelevant information, and shows that this distracting information doesn’t merely interfere with what you’re trying to attend to, but is encoded in memory along with that information.
 Schmitz TW, Cheng FHT, De Rosa E. Failing to Ignore: Paradoxical Neural Effects of Perceptual Load on Early Attentional Selection in Normal Aging. J. Neurosci. [Internet]. 2010 ;30(44):14750 - 14758. Available from: http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/abstract/30/44/14750
A new study shows improvement in visual working memory in older adults following ten hours training with a commercial brain training program. The performance gains correlated with changes in brain activity.
While brain training programs can certainly improve your ability to do the task you’re practicing, there has been little evidence that this transfers to other tasks. In particular, the holy grail has been very broad transfer, through improvement in working memory. While there has been some evidence of this in pilot programs for children with ADHD, a new study is the first to show such improvement in older adults using a commercial brain training program.
A study involving 30 healthy adults aged 60 to 89 has demonstrated that ten hours of training on a computer game designed to boost visual perception improved perceptual abilities significantly, and also increased the accuracy of their visual working memory to the level of younger adults. There was a direct link between improved performance and changes in brain activity in the visual association cortex.
The computer game was one of those developed by Posit Science. Memory improvement was measured about one week after the end of training. The improvement did not, however, withstand multi-tasking, which is a particular problem for older adults. The participants, half of whom underwent the training, were college educated. The training challenged players to discriminate between two different shapes of sine waves (S-shaped patterns) moving across the screen. The memory test (which was performed before and after training) involved watching dots move across the screen, followed by a short delay and then re-testing for the memory of the exact direction the dots had moved.
 Berry AS, Zanto TP, Clapp WC, Hardy JL, Delahunt PB, Mahncke HW, Gazzaley A. The Influence of Perceptual Training on Working Memory in Older Adults. PLoS ONE [Internet]. 2010 ;5(7):e11537 - e11537. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0011537
Full text available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0011537
Dr McPherson's practical, research-based books are instantly available as digital downloads from the Mempowered store (all formats), Kindle Store, Kobo Store, and iTunes. They are also available in paperback.