Failing to ignore: Paradoxical neural effects of perceptual load on early attentional selection in normal aging
Journal of Neuroscience
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We examined visual selective attention under perceptual load - simultaneous presentation of task-relevant and -irrelevant information - in healthy young and older adult human participants to determine whether age differences are observable at early stages of selection in the visual cortices. Participants viewed 50/50 superimposed face/place images and judged whether the faces were male or female, rendering places perceptible but task-irrelevant. Each stimulus was repeated, allowing us to index dynamic stimulus-driven competition from places. Consistent with intact early selection in young adults, we observed no adaptation to unattended places in parahippocampal place area (PPA) and significant adaptation to attended faces in fusiform face area (FFA). Older adults, however, exhibited both PPA adaptation to places and weak FFA adaptation to faces. We also probed participants' associative recognition for face-place pairs post-task. Older adults with better place recognition memory scores were found to exhibit both the largest magnitudes of PPA adaptation and the smallest magnitudes of FFA adaptation on the attention task. In a control study, we removed the competing perceptual information to decrease perceptual load. These data revealed that the initial age-related impairments in selective attention were not due to a general decline in visual cortical selectivity; both young and older adults exhibited robust FFA adaptation and neither group exhibited PPA adaptation to repeated faces. Accordingly, distracting information does not merely interfere with attended input in older adults, but is co-encoded along with the contents of attended input, to the extent that this information can subsequently be recovered from recognition memory. Copyright © 2010 the authors.