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Neurobiol Aging. 2012 Jan;33(1):134-48. doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2010.01.012. Epub 2010 Feb 9.

Distinct mechanisms for the impact of distraction and interruption on working memory in aging.

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Departments of Neurology and Physiology, WM Keck Foundation Center for Integrative Neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco, CA 94158, United States.


Interference is known to negatively impact the ability to maintain information in working memory (WM), an effect that is exacerbated with aging. Here, we explore how distinct sources of interference, i.e., distraction (stimuli to-be-ignored) and interruption (stimuli requiring attention), differentially influence WM in younger and older adults. EEG was recorded while participants engaged in three versions of a delayed-recognition task: no interference, a distracting stimulus, and an interrupting stimulus presented during WM maintenance. Behaviorally, both types of interference negatively impacted WM accuracy in older adults significantly more than younger adults (with a larger deficit for interruptions). N170 latency measures revealed that the degree of processing both distractors and interruptors predicted WM accuracy in both populations. However, while WM impairments could be explained by excessive attention to distractors by older adults (a suppression deficit), impairment induced by interruption were not clearly mediated by age-related increases in attention to interruptors. These results suggest that distinct underlying mechanisms mediate the impact of different types of external interference on WM in normal aging.

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