Cognitive decline is very common in age and particularly in subjects with neurodegenerative conditions. Besides memory and language, executive functions are very often affected in elderly and patients with Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease. However, the neural alterations associated with these executive deficits are still not fully understood. Therefore, we measured cortical activation using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) in 16 healthy elderly subjects (50-75 years) performing the Trail Making Test (TMT), a widely used neuropsychological instrument measuring executive function. In line with previous studies focusing on younger subjects, the results showed frontal activation during the TMT A and the TMT B in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the frontopolar area and also Broca's area. Furthermore, significant activation in the left motor, somatosensory cortices and somatosensory association cortices was demonstrated. Additionally, after a median split the differences between younger (58 years) subjects were analyzed with the older subjects showing a less focused prefrontal activation. Altogether, fNIRS was found to be suitable to detect cortical activation in elderly subjects during performance of the TMT as well as aging-related differences in prefrontal activation topography. These neural correlates of executive functions should be further investigated as a potential prodromal neural marker of executive deficits and neurodegenerative processes.
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