Summary and Keywords
The brain’s default network (DN) has received considerable interest in the context of so-called “normal” and pathological aging. Findings have generally been couched in support of a pessimistic view of brain aging, marked by substantial loss of structural brain integrity accompanied by a host of impairments in brain and cognitive function. A critical look at the literature, however, reveals that the standard loss of integrity, loss of function (LILF) view in normal aging may not necessarily hold with respect to the DN and the internally guided functions it supports. Many internally guided processes subserved by the DN are preserved or enhanced in cognitively healthy older adults. Moreover, differences in motivational, contextual, and physiological factors between young and older adults likely influence the extant neuroimaging and cognitive findings. Accordingly, normal aging can be viewed as a series of possibly adaptive cognitive and DN-related alterations that bolster cognitive function and promote socioemotional well-being and stability in a stage of life noted for change. On the other hand, the available evidence reveals strong support for the LILF view of the DN in neurodegenerative disorders, whereby syndromes such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and semantic dementia (SD), characterized by progressive atrophy to distinct DN subsystems, display distinct aberrations in autobiographical and semantic cognition. Taken together, these findings call for more naturalistic, age-appropriate, and longitudinal paradigms when investigating neurocognitive changes in aging and to adequately assess and control for differences in non-neural factors that may obscure “true” effects of normal and pathological aging. A shift in the framework with which age-related alterations in internally guided cognition are interpreted may shed important light on the neurocognitive mechanisms differentiating healthy and pathological aging, leading to a more complete picture of the aging brain in all its complexity.
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