Task difficulty modulates age-related differences in the behavioral and neural bases of language production

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Abstract

Older adults typically show decline in a variety of cognitive functions including inhibitory control and language production, with corresponding age-related increases in fMRI activation. However, it remains unclear whether such increases are compensatory or whether they reflect neural decline. One factor that may influence these brain-behavior relationships is difficulty. The current study investigated the effect of difficulty on age-related differences in the behavioral and neural bases of language production and inhibitory control using a phonological Go/No-Go picture naming task. Task demands were manipulated by varying the proportion of naming trials (Go trials) and inhibition trials (No-Go trials) across runs. All participants showed task-difficulty related declines in behavioral performance and increases in fMRI activation. Behaviorally, older adults were more sensitive to task difficulty, and elicited more fMRI activation than younger adults. Older adults were less neurally responsive to additional task demands (i.e., picture naming alone vs. Go/No-Go picture naming), but interestingly showed similar within-task increases as younger adults (e.g., Go Bias vs. No-Go Bias). Moreover, the relationships between fMRI activation and behavioral performance in older adults were multifaceted and the strength of these relations changed as a function of task difficulty. Specifically, activation in pre- and post- central gyri, right supramarginal and angular gyri was negatively correlated with naming reaction times, suggesting that activation in these regions may help mitigate age-related declines in language production. These findings are partially consistent with the CRUNCH model, highlighting the important influence of task difficulty on older adults’ behavioral performance and their patterns of fMRI activation during language production.

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Zhang, H., Eppes, A., & Diaz, M. T. (2019). Task difficulty modulates age-related differences in the behavioral and neural bases of language production. Neuropsychologia, 124, 254–273. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.11.017

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