Aging lowers activity in brain's language areas; performance unaffected

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of the brain show that despite the decrease in brain activity that naturally occurs in aging, particularly in the language areas of the left frontal lobe, some types of language processing may be performed more efficiently in older individuals.

Results of these experiments, performed by Darren Gitelman, M.D., and colleagues at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University, stand in contrast to performance and brain imaging findings in other areas of brain function, such as memory, attention and response speed, where older persons show decreased performance and efficiency when compared with younger populations.

The findings, which Gitelman and his co-investigators presented at today's Society for Neuroscience meeting in Orlando, Fla., are consistent with theories that suggest that some brain functions may be preserved with age.

"These results show that despite equivalent performance, the brain is not a static organ and may accomplish the same task in different ways as a function of a person's age," said Gitelman, an associate professor of neurology at The Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

The results also are important because instead of comparing brain activity and performance in older vs. younger groups of adults, Gitelman and co-researchers used participants who ranged from 23 to 78 years old.

"We demonstrated that brain activity changes occur slowly with age and not as a sudden change occurring in latter decades," Gitelman said.

In the study, 50 participants who were healthy, right-handed and had no evidence of a decline in thinking abilities performed a pronunciation task that involved reading pairs of words and deciding whether the word pair was a homonym, e.g., "reign" and "rain." They also performed a word meaning task that involved reading pairs of words and deciding whether each word pair was a synonym, e.

Contact: Elizabeth Crown
Northwestern University

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