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Updated 10:00 AM November 7, 2005




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Research shows older brains rise to challenge

When the going gets tough, senior citizens' brains get going, according to new research by a University professor studying how key regions of the brain click on when needed.

Several areas of the brain, especially in the frontal cortex, help people meet the demands of a constantly changing environment. While earlier research focused on older adults' failures to activate these regions, new research has found that older adults can activate these areas of the brain in response to a challenging task, and also bring additional brain regions online to help performance.

"Older adults' brains can indeed rise to the challenge, at least in some situations, although they may do so differently than young adults," says Cindy Lustig, an assistant professor of psychology who designed the study conducted at Washington University in St. Louis. "We are continuing to collect data from these groups and are also beginning to test young children and middle-aged adults as well."

Lustig and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity in young adults, age 18-30, and older adults, 65 and older, while subjects performed easy or difficult tasks.

The study was part of a research effort to understand what enables people to perform successfully in situations that demand control, and how the brain's reaction to control demands may change throughout life.

While viewing a screen to pick out the largest item displayed, participants made the same kinds of decisions for every test, the researchers found. For more difficult tasks, however, participants viewed patterns that switched without warning. In the difficult tests, they were required to pay close attention and respond to the change.

Three findings emerged:

• Similar to young adults, older adults increase activation in control-related brain regions in response to increase in difficulty.

• Older adults increase activation in other frontal brain regions that young adults do not.

• Young adults seem to deactivate, or "turn off" some other regions of the brain—perhaps reflecting a redirection of attention—but older adults do not do this to nearly the same degree.

The study will be presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting Nov. 13 in Washington, D.C.

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