Even the healthiest older adults experience changes in cognitive and sensory function. Studies show that older adults have reduced neural responses to sensory information. However, it is well known that sensory systems do not act in isolation but function cooperatively to either enhance or suppress neural responses to individual environmental stimuli. Very little research has been dedicated to understanding how aging affects the interactions between sensory systems, especially cross-modal deactivations or the ability of one sensory system (e.g., audition) to suppress the neural responses in another sensory system cortex (e.g., vision). Such cross-modal interactions have been implicated in attentional shifts between sensory modalities and could account for increased distractibility in older adults. To assess age-related changes in cross-modal deactivations, functional MRI studies were performed in 61 adults between 18 and 80 years old during simple auditory and visual discrimination tasks. Results within visual cortex confirmed previous findings of decreased responses to visual stimuli for older adults. Age-related changes in the visual cortical response to auditory stimuli were, however, much more complex and suggested an alteration with age in the functional interactions between the senses. Ventral visual cortical regions exhibited cross-modal deactivations in younger but not older adults, whereas more dorsal aspects of visual cortex were suppressed in older but not younger adults. These differences in deactivation also remained after adjusting for age-related reductions in brain volume of sensory cortex. Thus, functional differences in cortical activity between older and younger adults cannot solely be accounted for by differences in gray matter volume.
(c) 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.