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Cogn Behav Neurol. 2012 Mar;25(1):7-15. doi: 10.1097/WNN.0b013e318248ff1b.

Learning and generalization in healthy aging: implication for frontostriatal and hippocampal function.

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Department of Psychiatry, New Jersey Medical School, University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, Piscataway, NJ, USA.


Damage to the hippocampal and frontostriatal systems can occur across the adult life span. As these 2 systems are involved in learning processes, mild impairments of learning and generalization might be observed even in healthy aging. In this study, we examined both learning and generalization performance in 3 groups of older adults: young-older (ages 45 to 60 y), middle-older (ages 61 to 75 y), and oldest-older (ages 76 to 90 y). We used a simple computerized concurrent discrimination task in which the learning phase has shown sensitivity to frontostriatal dysfunction, and the generalization phase to hippocampal damage. We found that age significantly affected initial learning performance, but generalization was spared in all but the oldest group, with some individuals still generalizing very well. This finding suggests that (a) learning abilities are affected in healthy aging (consistent with earlier reports of frontostriatal dysfunction in healthy aging) and (b) generalization deficit does not necessarily occur in early older age. We hypothesize that generalization deficits in some in the oldest group may be related to hippocampal pathology. Our data shed light on possible neural system dysfunction in healthy aging and Alzheimer disease.

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