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Annu Rev Psychol. 2009;60:173-96. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093656.

The adaptive brain: aging and neurocognitive scaffolding.

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  • 1The Center for Brain Health, University of Texas at Dallas, Dallas, Texas 75235, USA.


There are declines with age in speed of processing, working memory, inhibitory function, and long-term memory, as well as decreases in brain structure size and white matter integrity. In the face of these decreases, functional imaging studies have demonstrated, somewhat surprisingly, reliable increases in prefrontal activation. To account for these joint phenomena, we propose the scaffolding theory of aging and cognition (STAC). STAC provides an integrative view of the aging mind, suggesting that pervasive increased frontal activation with age is a marker of an adaptive brain that engages in compensatory scaffolding in response to the challenges posed by declining neural structures and function. Scaffolding is a normal process present across the lifespan that involves use and development of complementary, alternative neural circuits to achieve a particular cognitive goal. Scaffolding is protective of cognitive function in the aging brain, and available evidence suggests that the ability to use this mechanism is strengthened by cognitive engagement, exercise, and low levels of default network engagement.

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