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Autonomic prediction of error-related ERP components in perceptual and conceptual tasks in older and younger adults
Mathewson, Karen J.
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In studies of cognitive processing, the allocation of attention has been consistently linked to subtle, phasic adjustments in autonomic control. Both autonomic control of heart rate and control of the allocation of attention are known to decline with age. It is not known, however, whether characteristic individual differences in autonomic control and the ability to control attention are closely linked. To test this, a measure of parasympathetic function, vagal tone (VT) was computed from cardiac recordings from older and younger adults taken before and during performance of two attentiondemanding tasks - the Eriksen visual flanker task and the source memory task. Both tasks elicited event-related potentials (ERPs) that accompany errors, i.e., error-related negativities (ERNs) and error positivities (Pe's). The ERN is a negative deflection in the ERP signal, time-locked to responses made on incorrect trials, likely generated in the anterior cingulate. It is followed immediately by the Pe, a broad, positive deflection which may reflect conscious awareness of having committed an error. Age-attenuation ofERN amplitude has previously been found in paradigms with simple stimulus-response mappings, such as the flanker task, but has rarely been examined in more complex, conceptual tasks. Until now, there have been no reports of its being investigated in a source monitoring task. Age-attenuation of the ERN component was observed in both tasks. Results also indicated that the ERNs generated in these two tasks were generally comparable for young adults. For older adults, however, the ERN from the source monitoring task was not only shallower, but incorporated more frontal processing, apparently reflecting task demands. The error positivities elicited by 3 the two tasks were not comparable, however, and age-attenuation of the Pe was seen only in the more perceptual flanker task. For younger adults, it was Pe scalp topography that seemed to reflect task demands, being maximal over central parietal areas in the flanker task, but over very frontal areas in the source monitoring task. With respect to vagal tone, in the flanker task, neither the number of errors nor ERP amplitudes were predicted by baseline or on-task vagal tone measures. However, in the more difficult source memory task, lower VT was marginally associated with greater numbers of source memory errors in the older group. Thus, for older adults, relatively low levels of parasympathetic control over cardiac response coincided with poorer source memory discrimination. In both groups, lower levels of baseline VT were associated with larger amplitude ERNs, and smaller amplitude Pe's. Thus, low VT was associated in a conceptual task with a greater "emergency response" to errors, and at the same time, reduced awareness of having made them. The efficiency of an individual's complex cognitive processing was therefore associated with the flexibility of parasympathetic control of heart rate, in response to a cognitively challenging task.