Distinct age-related brain activity patterns in the prefrontal cortex when increasing cognitive load: A functional near-infrared spectroscopy study


Researchers have long observed distinct brain activity patterns in older adults compared with younger adults that correlate with cognitive performance. Mainly, older adults tend to show over-recruitment of bilateral brain regions during lower task loads and improved performance interpreted as compensation, but not observed at higher loads. However, there are discrepancies about whether increases in activity are compensatory and whether older adults can show compensation at higher loads. Our aim was to examine age-related differences in prefrontal cortex (PFC) activity and cognitive performance using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) during single and dual N-back tasks. Twenty-seven young adults (18–27 years) and 31 older adults (64–84 yrs) took part in the study. We used a robust fNIRS data methodology consisting of channel and region of interest analyses. Results showed differences in performance between task load conditions and age-related differences in reaction times but no age-group effects for accuracy. Older adults exhibited more bilateral PFC activation compared with young adults across all tasks and showed increases in brain activity in high compared to low load conditions. Our findings further support previous reports showing that older adults use compensatory recruitment of additional brain regions in PFC to maintain cognitive performance but go against the notion that such compensation is not present at higher cognitive loads. Additionally, our results indicate that fNIRS is a sensitive tool that can characterize adaptive cortical changes in healthy aging.