Summary and Keywords
Cognitive neuroimaging studies often report that older adults display more activation of neural networks relative to younger adults, referred to as overactivation. Greater or more widespread activity frequently involves bilateral recruitment of both cerebral hemispheres, especially the frontal cortex. In many reports, overactivation has been associated with superior cognitive performance, suggesting that this activity may reflect compensatory processes that offset age-related decline and maintain behavior. Several theories have been proposed to account for age differences in brain activation, including the Hemispheric Asymmetry Reduction in Older Adults (HAROLD) model, the Posterior-Anterior Shift in Aging (PASA) theory, the Compensation-Related Utilization of Neural Circuits Hypothesis (CRUNCH), and the Scaffolding Theory of Aging and Cognition (STAC and STAC-r). Each model has a different explanatory scope with regard to compensatory processes, and each has been highly influential in the field. HAROLD contrasts the general pattern of bilateral prefrontal activation in older adults with that of more unilateral activation in younger adults. PASA describes both anterior (e.g., frontal) overactivation and posterior (e.g., occipital) underactivation in older adults relative to younger adults. CRUNCH emphasizes that the level or extent of brain activity can change in response to the level of task demand at any age. Finally, STAC and STAC-r take the broadest perspective to incorporate individual differences in brain structure, the capacity to implement functional scaffolding, and life-course neural enrichment and depletion factors to predict cognition and cognitive change across the lifespan. Extant empirical work has documented that compensatory overactivation can be observed in regions beyond the prefrontal cortex, that variations in task difficulty influence the degree of brain activation, and that younger adults can show compensatory overactivation under high mental demands. Additional research utilizing experimental designs (e.g., transcranial magnetic stimulation), longitudinal assessments, greater regional precision, both verbal and nonverbal material, and measures of individual difference factors will continue to refine our understanding of age-related activation differences and adjudicate among these various accounts of neurocognitive aging.
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