Neural Underpinnings of Within-Person Variability in Cognitive Functioning

Psychol Aging. 2009 Dec;24(4):792-808. doi: 10.1037/a0017798.


Increased intraindividual variability (IIV), reflecting within-person fluctuations in behavioral performance, is commonly observed in aging as well as in select disorders including traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dementia. Much recent progress has been made toward understanding the functional significance of IIV in cognitive performance (MacDonald, Nyberg, & Bäckman, 2006) and biological information processing (Stein, Gossen, & Jones 2005), with parallel efforts devoted to investigating the links between older adults' deficient neuromodulation and their more variable neuronal and cognitive functions (Bäckman, Nyberg, Lindenberger, Li, & Farde, 2006). Despite these advances in the study of IIV, there has been little empirical examination of underlying neural correlates and virtually no synthesis of extant findings. The present review summarizes the accumulating empirical evidence linking age-related increases in IIV in cognitive performance to neural correlates at anatomical, functional, neuromodulatory, and genetic levels. Computational theories of neural dynamics (e.g., Li, Lindenberger, & Sikström, 2001) are also introduced to illustrate how age-related neuromodulatory deficiencies may contribute to increased neuronal noise and render information processing in aging neurocognitive systems to be less robust. The potential benefits of stochastic resonance and external noise are also discussed with respect to processing subthreshold stimuli (e.g., Li, von Oertzen, & Lindenberger, 2006). We conclude by highlighting important challenges and outstanding research issues that remain to be answered in the study of IIV.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Diseases / epidemiology
  • Brain Diseases / physiopathology
  • Cognition*
  • Female
  • Human Development*
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Reaction Time