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Neuroimage. 2012 Jan 2;59(1):646-54. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.06.092. Epub 2011 Jul 7.

Amplitude modulations and inter-trial phase stability of alpha-oscillations differentially reflect working memory constraints across the lifespan.

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1
Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany.

Abstract

Working memory (WM) capacity increases across childhood, peaks in young adulthood, and declines thereafter. Developmental and aging theories suggest that deficient inhibitory control processes in children and older adults may underlie the lower performance relative to younger adults. Recently, oscillatory alpha power (7-13 Hz) of the electroencephalogram (EEG) has been suggested as a neural marker of inhibition processes contributing to WM performance (Sauseng et al., 2009). We examined 20 children (10-13 years), 12 younger adults (20-26 years), and 20 older adults (70-76 years) in a cued change-detection paradigm. Behaviorally, we observed the expected lifespan peak in younger adults. EEG alpha power was generally reduced in older adults compared to children and younger adults. In line with previous research, hemispheric differences in alpha power related to attention and WM processes during the retention interval increased with load in younger adults. In children and older adults, lateralized alpha power increased from low to medium load conditions, but decreased for high load conditions. Furthermore, older adults showed higher inter-trial phase stability shortly after stimulus onset compared to children and younger adults. Our results show that inhibitory control processes as indexed by local alpha power modulations can be observed in children and older adults but seem to break down when WM load is high. In addition, older adults are more entrained by external stimulation what may increase a need for inhibitory control during later processing. We conclude that differences in inhibitory control processes and information uptake as reflected in amplitude modulations and inter-trial phase stability of alpha rhythms interactively determine WM constraints across the lifespan.

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