Age-related changes in ERPs associated with context-based and response-based interference
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Age-related differences in information processing have often been explained through deficits in older adults' ability to ignore irrelevant stimuli and suppress inappropriate responses through inhibitory control processes. Functional imaging work on young adults by Nelson and colleagues (2003) has indicated that inferior frontal and anterior cingulate cortex playa key role in resolving interference effects during a delay-to-match memory task. Specifically, inferior frontal cortex appeared to be recruited under conditions of context interference while the anterior cingulate was associated with interference resolution at the stage of response selection. Related work has shown that specific neural activities related to interference resolution are not preserved in older adults, supporting the notion of age-related declines in inhibitory control (Jonides et aI., 2000, West et aI., 2004b). In this study the time course and nature of these inhibition-related processes were investigated in young and old adults using high-density ERPs collected during a modified Sternberg task. Participants were presented with four target letters followed by a probe that either did or did not match one of the target letters held in working memory. Inhibitory processes were evoked by manipulating the nature of cognitive conflict in a particular trial. Conflict in working memory was elicited through the presentation of a probe letter in immediately previous target sets. Response-based conflict was produced by presenting a negative probe that had just been viewed as a positive probe on the previous trial. Younger adults displayed a larger orienting response (P3a and P3b) to positive probes relative to a non-target baseline. Older adults produced the orienting P3a and 3 P3b waveforms but their responses did not differentiate between target and non-target stimuli. This age-related change in response to targetness is discussed in terms of "early selection/late correction" models of cognitive ageing. Younger adults also showed a sensitivity in their N450 response to different levels of interference. Source analysis of the N450 responses to the conflict trials of younger adults indicated an initial dipole in inferior frontal cortex and a subsequent dipole in anterior cingulate cortex, suggesting that inferior prefrontal regions may recruit the anterior cingulate to exert cognitive control functions. Individual older adults did show some evidence of an N450 response to conflict; however, this response was attenuated by a co-occurring positive deflection in the N450 time window. It is suggested that this positivity may reflect a form of compensatory activity in older adults to adapt to their decline in inhibitory control.