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Cortex. 2013 May;49(5):1304-13. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2012.04.003. Epub 2012 Apr 13.

Aging effects on functional auditory and visual processing using fMRI with variable sensory loading.

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  • 1Department of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, London, UK.



Traditionally, studies investigating the functional implications of age-related structural brain alterations have focused on higher cognitive processes; by increasing stimulus load, these studies assess behavioral and neurophysiological performance. In order to understand age-related changes in these higher cognitive processes, it is crucial to examine changes in visual and auditory processes that are the gateways to higher cognitive functions. This study provides evidence for age-related functional decline in visual and auditory processing, and regional alterations in functional brain processing, using non-invasive neuroimaging.


Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), younger (n=11; mean age=31) and older (n=10; mean age=68) adults were imaged while observing flashing checkerboard images (passive visual stimuli) and hearing word lists (passive auditory stimuli) across varying stimuli presentation rates.


Younger adults showed greater overall levels of temporal and occipital cortical activation than older adults for both auditory and visual stimuli. The relative change in activity as a function of stimulus presentation rate showed differences between young and older participants. In visual cortex, the older group showed a decrease in fMRI blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal magnitude as stimulus frequency increased, whereas the younger group showed a linear increase. In auditory cortex, the younger group showed a relative increase as a function of word presentation rate, while older participants showed a relatively stable magnitude of fMRI BOLD response across all rates. When analyzing participants across all ages, only the auditory cortical activation showed a continuous, monotonically decreasing BOLD signal magnitude as a function of age.


Our preliminary findings show an age-related decline in demand-related, passive early sensory processing. As stimulus demand increases, visual and auditory cortex do not show increases in activity in older compared to younger people. This may negatively impact on the fidelity of information available to higher cognitive processing. Such evidence may inform future studies focused on cognitive decline in aging.

Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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