Linking cognitive and visual perceptual decline in healthy aging: The information degradation hypothesis.

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Several hypotheses attempt to explain the relation between cognitive and perceptual decline in aging (e.g., common-cause, sensory deprivation, cognitive load on perception, information degradation). Unfortunately, the majority of past studies examining this association have used correlational analyses, not allowing for these hypotheses to be tested sufficiently. This correlational issue is especially relevant for the information degradation hypothesis, which states that degraded perceptual signal inputs, resulting from either age-related neurobiological processes (e.g., retinal degeneration) or experimental manipulations (e.g., reduced visual contrast), lead to errors in perceptual processing, which in turn may affect non-perceptual, higher-order cognitive processes. Even though the majority of studies examining the relation between age-related cognitive and perceptual decline have been correlational, we reviewed several studies demonstrating that visual manipulations affect both younger and older adults' cognitive performance, supporting the information degradation hypothesis and contradicting implications of other hypotheses (e.g., common-cause, sensory deprivation, cognitive load on perception). The reviewed evidence indicates the necessity to further examine the information degradation hypothesis in order to identify mechanisms underlying age-related cognitive decline.





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Monge, Zachary A, and David J Madden (2016). Linking cognitive and visual perceptual decline in healthy aging: The information degradation hypothesis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev, 69. pp. 166–173. 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.07.031 Retrieved from

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David Joseph Madden

Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

My research focuses primarily on the cognitive neuroscience of aging: the investigation of age-related changes in perception, attention, and memory, using both behavioral measures and neuroimaging techniques, including positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).

The behavioral measures have focused on reaction time, with the goal of distinguishing age-related changes in specific cognitive abilities from more general effects arising from a slowing in elementary perceptual processes. The cognitive abilities of interest include selective attention as measured in visual search tasks, semantic and episodic memory retrieval, and executive control processes.

The behavioral measures are necessary to define the cognitive abilities of interest, and the neuroimaging techniques help define the functional neuroanatomy of those abilities. The PET and fMRI measures provide information regarding neural activity during cognitive performance. DTI is a recently developed technique that images the structural integrity of white matter. The white matter tracts of the brain provide critical pathways linking the gray matter regions, and thus this work will complement the studies using PET and fMRI that focus on gray matter activation.

A current focus of the research program is the functional connectivity among regions, not only during cognitive task performance but also during rest. These latter measures, referred to as intrinsic functional connectivity, are beginning to show promise as an index of overall brain functional efficiency, which can be assessed without the implementation of a specific cognitive task. From DTI, information can be obtained regarding how anatomical connectivity constrains intrinsic functional connectivity. It will be important to determine the relative influence of white matter pathway integrity, intrinsic functional connectivity, and task-related functional connectivity, as mediators of age-related differences in behavioral measures of cognitive performance.

Ultimately, the research program can help link age-related changes in cognitive performance to changes in the structure and function of specific neural systems. The results also have implications for clinical translation, in terms of the identification of neural biomarkers for the diagnosis of neural pathology and targeting rehabilitation procedures.

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