Aging & Longevity
Senior citizens have special brain spot to help with
Senior shoppers use additional brain area to remember
competing consumer products and choose the better one
A Senior's Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex
in their 20s and 30s, senior citizens use a structure called the
ventromedial prefrontal cortex for shopping decisions that rely
on memory. Photo: Nichole Lighthall, Duke University
Dec. 16, 2014 – Okay, the holiday season is in full
swing but you still have shopping to do. Will that old senior brain be
up to the task? It will, says new research, but the senior citizen will
call on an additional brain area where it will find extra brainpower to
make shopping decisions - especially those that rely on memory.
The Duke University study suggests that older
shoppers use an additional brain area to remember competing consumer
products and choose the better one.
"The study gives a bright picture, actually," said
lead author Nichole Lighthall, a postdoctoral researcher in Roberto
Cabeza's lab at Duke's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.
"It suggests that for healthy older adults, even
though their memory might not be as good, they can naturally recruit
other brain regions that are not typically involved in the task. It
seems that it allows them to perform at a higher level."
The study used functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) -- a noninvasive technique that indirectly measures
changes in brain activity -- to scan the brains of 20 younger adults (25
years old, on average), and 22 older adults (around 70 years old) while
the participants viewed pictures of consumer products with star ratings
indicating their value, similar to online shopping sites like
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Participants were asked to "keep shopping" by
navigating from one screen to the next while trying to remember the
value for each consumer product they encountered. They then had to
select the better of two competing products, such as two different
sweaters, based on which was a better value.
Some versions of the task were easy. For example,
participants saw the first product, then the second product, and were
asked to select the better one.
In the more challenging trials, participants were
shown the first product, and then had to learn about or "buy" several
unrelated items before being shown the second, competing product and
making a decision.
Young and old adults made decisions with similar
speed and accuracy. In addition to the normal patterns of brain
activity, however, older adults used a part of their brain called the
ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as memory demand increased.
The vmPFC is known to be involved in processing
risk calculations and it has been shown help people assign values to
rewards and emotions.
In this study, the more active the vmPFC was, the
better participants performed at the task. Although researchers couldn't
prove that the heightened brain activity caused participants to perform
better, "it seemed that (the enhanced brain activity) was actually
helping them, it was beneficial to their performance," Lighthall said.
Some of the higher-scoring subjects had good
general strategies for memory. "They brought in stories about (the
products) that related to their lives," Lighthall said, or they
translated the star ratings into words that were more meaningful to
them, like "terrible" or "awesome."
The vmPFC, it turns out, is also involved in
autobiographical memory and self-referential thinking, Lighthall said.
The new results point to a need to simplify
decisions for seniors, especially those that are more important than
In medical-decision making, for example, selecting
the best insurance plan can be intimidating. "What often happens is that
people will delay the decision if it's too challenging," Lighthall said.
"Our study suggests that, to the extent that
decision-making or economic choice rely on memory, those situations are
really going to be harder and require a different type of processing for
older adults," she said.
But if the researchers' interpretation of the
vmPFC's role is confirmed, then it could point to potential strategies
to rehabilitate decision-making deficits in older adults, said Cabeza, a
professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, and a member of the
Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.
"For example, future studies could identify the
conditions that lead to vmPFC recruitment during decision-making and
explore ways of promoting these conditions when older adults make
decisions in real life," Cabeza said.
The report on the study appeared Nov. 19 in the
Journal of Neuroscience It work was supported by National Institute
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