Effects of Aging on Cerebral Oxygenation during Working-Memory Performance: A Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Study


Working memory is sensitive to aging-related decline. Evidence exists that aging is accompanied by a reorganization of the working-memory circuitry, but the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms are unclear. In this study, we examined aging-related changes in prefrontal activation during working-memory performance using functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), a noninvasive neuroimaging technique. Seventeen healthy young (21-32 years) and 17 healthy older adults (64-81 years) performed a verbal working-memory task (n-back). Oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin concentration changes were registered by two fNIRS channels located over the left and right prefrontal cortex. Increased working-memory load resulted in worse performance compared to the control condition in older adults, but not in young participants. In both young and older adults, prefrontal activation increased with rising working-memory load. Young adults showed slight right-hemispheric dominance at low levels of working-memory load, while no hemispheric differences were apparent in older adults. Analysis of the time-activation curve during the high working-memory load condition revealed a continuous increase of the hemodynamic response in the young. In contrast to that, a quadratic pattern of activation was found in the older participants. Based on these results it could be hypothesized that young adults were better able to keep the prefrontal cortex recruited over a prolonged period of time. To conclude, already at low levels of working-memory load do older adults recruit both hemispheres, possibly in an attempt to compensate for the observed aging-related decline in performance. Also, our study shows that aging effects on the time course of the hemodynamic response must be taken into account in the interpretation of the results of neuroimaging studies that rely on blood oxygen levels, such as fMRI. © 2012 Vermeij et al.