Age-related differences in resolving semantic and phonological competition during receptive language tasks.

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Receptive language (e.g., reading) is largely preserved in the aging brain, and semantic processes in particular may continue to develop throughout the lifespan. We investigated the neural underpinnings of phonological and semantic retrieval in older and younger adults during receptive language tasks (rhyme and semantic similarity judgments). In particular, we were interested in the role of competition on language retrieval and varied the similarities between a cue, target, and distractor that were hypothesized to affect the mental process of competition. Behaviorally, all participants responded faster and more accurately during the rhyme task compared to the semantic task. Moreover, older adults demonstrated higher response accuracy than younger adults during the semantic task. Although there were no overall age-related differences in the neuroimaging results, an Age×Task interaction was found in left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), with older adults producing greater activation than younger adults during the semantic condition. These results suggest that at lower levels of task difficulty, older and younger adults engaged similar neural networks that benefited behavioral performance. As task difficulty increased during the semantic task, older adults relied more heavily on largely left hemisphere language regions, as well as regions involved in perception and internal monitoring. Our results are consistent with the stability of language comprehension across the adult lifespan and illustrate how the preservation of semantic representations with aging may influence performance under conditions of increased task difficulty.





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Zhuang, Jie, Micah A Johnson, David J Madden, Deborah M Burke and Michele T Diaz (2016). Age-related differences in resolving semantic and phonological competition during receptive language tasks. Neuropsychologia, 93(Pt A). pp. 189–199. 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2016.10.016 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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