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PLoS One. 2012;7(3):e33631. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0033631. Epub 2012 Mar 15.

Same modulation but different starting points: performance modulates age differences in inferior frontal cortex activity during word-retrieval.

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Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, United States of America.


The neural basis of word-retrieval deficits in normal aging has rarely been assessed and the few previous functional imaging studies found enhanced activity in right prefrontal areas in healthy older compared to younger adults. However, more pronounced right prefrontal recruitment has primarily been observed during challenging task conditions. Moreover, increased task difficulty may result in enhanced activity in the ventral inferior frontal gyrus (vIFG) bilaterally in younger participants as well. Thus, the question arises whether increased activity in older participants represents an age-related phenomenon or reflects task difficulty effects. In the present study, we manipulated task difficulty during overt semantic and phonemic word-generation and used functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess activity patterns in the vIFG in healthy younger and older adults (N = 16/group; mean age: 24 vs. 69 years). Both groups produced fewer correct responses during the more difficult task conditions. Overall, older participants produced fewer correct responses and showed more pronounced task-related activity in the right vIFG. However, increased activity during the more difficult conditions was found in both groups. Absolute degree of activity was correlated with performance across groups, tasks and difficulty levels. Activity modulation (difficult vs. easy conditions) was correlated with the respective drop in performance across groups and tasks. In conclusion, vIFG activity levels and modulation of activity were mediated by performance accuracy in a similar way in both groups. Group differences in the right vIFG activity were explained by performance accuracy which needs to be considered in future functional imaging studies of healthy and pathological aging.

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