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Neuropsychologia. 2005;43(4):554-63. Epub 2004 Sep 28.

Effect of aging on stimulus-reward association learning.

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  • 1Department of Neurology, Berlin NeuroImaging Center, Charité, Campus Mitte, Schumannstr. 20/21, 10117 Berlin, Germany.


The flexible learning of stimulus-reward associations when required by situational context is essential for everyday behavior. Older adults experience a progressive decline in several cognitive functions and show deficiencies in neuropsychological tasks requiring flexible adaptation to external feedback, which could be related to impairments in reward association learning. To study the effect of aging on stimulus-reward association learning 20 young and 20 older adults performed a probabilistic object reversal task (pORT) along with a battery of tests assessing executive functions and general intellectual abilities. The pORT requires learning and reversing associations between actions and their outcomes. Older participants collected fewer points, needed more trials to reach the learning criterion, and completed less blocks successfully compared to young adults. This difference remained statistically significant after correcting for the age effect of other tests assessing executive functions. This suggests that there is an age-related difference in reward association learning as measured using the pORT, which is not closely related to other executive functions with respect to the age effect. In human aging, structural alterations of reward detecting structures and functional changes of the dopaminergic as well as the serotonergic system might contribute to the deficit in reward association learning observed in this study.

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