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Brain Res. 2010 Jan 15;1310:124-41. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2009.11.016. Epub 2009 Nov 13.

Changes in familiarity and recollection across the lifespan: an ERP perspective.

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Cognitive Electrophysiology Laboratory, Division of Cognitive Neuroscience, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY 10032, USA.


The ability to recognize previous experience depends on two neurocognitive processes, familiarity, fast-acting and relatively automatic, and recollection, slower-acting and more effortful. Familiarity appears to mature relatively early in development and is maintained with aging, whereas recollection shows protracted development and deteriorates with aging. To assess this model, ERP and behavioral data were recorded in children (9-10 years), adolescents (13-14), young (20-30) and older (65-85) adults during a recognition memory task in which the same items were studied and tested over four cycles. Participants decided whether each item was old or new and then whether the decision was associated with (Remember, R) or without (Know, K) contextual detail. Memory sensitivity was greatest in young adults, although all groups showed increases in memory sensitivity and R judgments with repetition. Familiarity-based processes (mid-frontal episodic memory, EM, effect) appeared to be used by adolescents, young and older adults, but apparently not to the same extent by children. Recollection-based processes (parietal EM effect) were recruited by children, adolescents and young adults, but to a much lesser extent by older adults. Repetition enhanced the parietal effect in all but older adults. However, post-hoc analyses indicated that reduced recollective processing was confined to poor-performing older adults. By contrast, children appeared to rely mainly on recollection concordant with their conservative decision criteria across tests. We conclude that episodic-memory development reflects the increasingly flexible and interchangeable use of familiarity and recollection with a breakdown in the latter at older ages, perhaps limited to poor-performing older adults.

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