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Biol Psychiatry. 2011 Jul 15;70(2):115-22. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.12.032. Epub 2011 Feb 11.

A review of functional brain imaging correlates of successful cognitive aging.

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  • 1Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging, University of California San Diego, San Diego, California, USA.


Preserved cognitive performance is a key feature of successful aging. Several theoretical models have been proposed to explain the putative underlying relationship between brain function and performance. We aimed to review imaging studies of the association between brain functional response and cognitive performance among healthy younger and older adults to understand the neural correlates of successful cognitive aging. MEDLINE-indexed articles published between January 1989 and December 2009 and bibliographies of these articles and related reviews were searched. Studies that measured brain function with functional magnetic resonance imaging or positron emission tomography, evaluated cognitive performance, analyzed how cognitive performance related to brain response, and studied healthy older individuals were included. Eighty of 550 articles met these criteria. Seventy percent of the studies reported some brain regions in which greater activation related to better cognitive performance among older participants. This association was not universal, however, and was seen mainly in frontal cortex brain response and seemed to be more common among older compared with younger individuals. This review supports the notion of compensatory increases in brain activity in old age resulting in better cognitive performance, as suggested by hemispheric asymmetry reduction and posterior-anterior shift models of functional brain aging. However, a simple model of bigger structure → greater brain response → better cognitive performance might not be accurate. Suggestions for future research are discussed.

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