Date: 14 Jan 2014

Understanding age-related reductions in visual working memory capacity: Examining the stages of change detection

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Abstract

Visual working memory (VWM) capacity is reduced in older adults. Research has shown age-related impairments to VWM encoding, but aging is likely to affect multiple stages of VWM. In the present study, we recorded the event-related potentials (ERPs) of younger and older adults during VWM maintenance and retrieval. We measured encoding-stage processing with the P1 component, maintenance-stage processing with the contralateral delay activity (CDA), and retrieval-stage processing by comparing the activity for old and new items (old–new effect). Older adults showed lower behavioral capacity estimates (K) than did younger adults, but surprisingly, their P1 components and CDAs were comparable to those of younger adults. This remarkable dissociation between neural activity and behavior in the older adults indicated that the P1 and CDA did not accurately assess their VWM capacity. However, the neural activity evoked during VWM retrieval yielded results that helped clarify the age-related differences. During retrieval, younger adults showed early old–new effects in frontal and occipital areas and a late central–parietal old–new effect, whereas older adults showed a late right-lateralized parietal old–new effect. The younger adults’ early old–new effects strongly resembled an index of perceptual fluency, suggesting that perceptual implicit memory was activated. The activation of implicit memory could have facilitated the younger adults’ behavior, and the lack of these early effects in older adults may suggest that they have much lower-resolution memory than do younger adults. From these data, we speculated that younger and older adults store the same number of items in VWM, but that younger adults store a higher-resolution representation than do older adults.