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Neurobiol Aging. 2003 Nov;24(7):1005-11.

Deep processing activates the medial temporal lobe in young but not in old adults.

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  • 1Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Box 90999, LSRC Bldg., Rm B243N, Durham, NC 27708, USA.


Age-related impairments in episodic memory have been related to a deficiency in semantic processing, based on the finding that elderly adults typically benefit less than young adults from deep, semantic as opposed to shallow, nonsemantic processing of study items. In the present study, we tested the hypothesis that elderly adults are not able to perform certain cognitive operations under deep processing conditions. We further hypothesised that this inability does not involve regions commonly associated with lexical/semantic retrieval processes, but rather involves a dysfunction of the medial temporal lobe (MTL) memory system. To this end, we used functional MRI on rather extensive groups of young and elderly adults to compare brain activity patterns obtained during a deep (living/nonliving) and a shallow (uppercase/lowercase) classification task. Common activity in relation to semantic classification was observed in regions that have been previously related to semantic retrieval, including mainly left-lateralised activity in the inferior prefrontal, middle temporal, and middle frontal/anterior cingulate gyrus. Although the young adults showed more activity in some of these areas, the finding of mainly overlapping activation patterns during semantic classification supports the idea that lexical/semantic retrieval processes are still intact in elderly adults. This received further support by the finding that both groups showed similar behavioural performances as well on the deep and shallow classification tasks. Importantly, though, the young revealed significantly more activity than the elderly adults in the left anterior hippocampus during deep relative to shallow classification. This finding is in line with the idea that age-related impairments in episodic encoding are, at least partly, due to an under-recruitment of the medial temporal lobe memory system.

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