Influence of encoding difficulty, word frequency, and phonological regularity on age differences in word naming.

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It is presently unclear as to why older adults take longer than younger adults to recognize visually presented words. To examine this issue in more detail, the authors conducted two word-naming studies (Experiment 1: 20 older adults and 20 younger adults; Experiment 2: 60 older adults and 60 younger adults) to determine the relative effects of orthographic encoding (case type), lexical access (word frequency), and phonological regularity (regular vs. irregular phonology). The hypothesis was that older adults attempt to compensate for sensory and motor slowing by using progressively larger perceptual units (holistic encoding). However, if forced to use smaller perceptual units (e.g., by using mixed-case presentation), it was predicted that older adults would be particularly challenged. Older adults did show larger case-mixing effects than younger adults (suggesting that older adults' performances were especially poor when they were forced to use smaller perceptual units), but there were no age differences in word frequency or phonological regularity even though both age groups showed main effects for these variables. These results suggest that lexical access skill remains stable in the addressed (orthographic/semantic) and assembled (phonological) routes over the life span, but that older adults slow down in recognizing words because it takes them longer to normalize (perceptually "clean up") noisier sensory information.





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Allen, Philip A, Barbara Bucur, Jeremy Grabbe, Tammy Work and David J Madden (2011). Influence of encoding difficulty, word frequency, and phonological regularity on age differences in word naming. Experimental aging research, 37(3). pp. 261–292. 10.1080/0361073x.2011.568805 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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