Increased prefrontal activity with aging reflects nonspecific neural responses rather than compensation


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Elevated prefrontal cortex activity is often observed in healthy older adults despite declines in their memory and other cognitive functions. According to one view, this activity reflects a compensatory functional posterior-to-anterior shift, which contributes to maintenance of cognitive performance when posterior cortical function is impaired. Alternatively, the increased prefrontal activity may be less efficient or less specific, owing to structural and neurochemical changes accompanying aging. These accounts are difficult to distinguish on the basis of average activity levels within brain regions. Instead, we used a novel model-based multivariate analysis technique, applied to two independent functional magnetic resonance imaging datasets from an adult-lifespan human sample (N=123 and N=115; approximately half female). Standard analysis replicated the age-related increase in average prefrontal activation, but multivariate tests revealed that this activity did not carry additional information. The results contradict the hypothesis of a compensatory posterior-to-anterior shift. Instead, they suggest that the increased prefrontal activation reflects reduced efficiency or specificity, rather than compensation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7303-7313
JournalThe Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number33
Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2018


  • memory
  • cognitive ageing
  • compensation
  • fMRI
  • aging


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