Age-related prefrontal cortex activation in associative memory: An fNIRS pilot study


Older adults typically perform more poorly than younger adults in free recall memory tests. This age-related deficit has been linked to decline of brain activation and brain prefrontal lateralization, which may be the result of compensatory mechanisms. In the present pilot study, we investigated the effect of age on prefrontal cortex (PFC) activation during performance of a task that requires memory associations (temporal vs. spatial clustering), using functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS). Ten younger adults, ten cognitively high-performing older individuals, and ten low-performing older individuals completed a free recall task, where either a temporal or spatial strategy (but not both simultaneously) could be employed to retrieve groups of same-category stimuli, whilst changes in PFC hemodynamics were recorded by means of a 12-channel fNIRS system. The results suggest PFC activation, and right lateralization specific to younger adults. Moreover, age did not affect use of memory organization, given that temporal clustering was preferred over spatial clustering in all groups. These findings are in line with previous literature on the aging brain and on temporal organization of memory. Our results also suggest that the PFC may be specifically involved in memory for temporal associations. Future research may consider whether age-related deficits in temporal organization may be an early sign of PFC pathology and possible neurodegeneration.