Cognitive control impairments in healthy older adults may partly reflect disturbances in the ability to actively maintain goal-relevant information, a function that depends on the engagement of lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC). In 2 functional magnetic resonance imaging studies, healthy young and older adults performed versions of a task in which contextual cues provide goal-relevant information used to bias processing of subsequent ambiguous probes. In Study 1, a blocked design and manipulation of the cue-probe delay interval revealed a generalized pattern of enhanced task-related brain activity in older adults but combined with a specific delay-related reduction of activity in lateral PFC regions. In Study 2, a combined blocked/event-related design revealed enhanced sustained (i.e., across-trial) activity but a reduction in transient trial-related activation in lateral PFC among older adults. Further analyses of within-trial activity dynamics indicated that, within these and other lateral PFC regions, older adults showed reduced activation during the cue and delay period but increased activation at the time of the probe, particularly on high-interference trials. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that age-related impairments in goal maintenance abilities cause a compensatory shift in older adults from a proactive (seen in young adults) to a reactive cognitive control strategy.
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