Reliable differences in brain activity between young and old adults: a quantitative meta-analysis across multiple cognitive domains

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2010 Jul;34(8):1178-94. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.01.009. Epub 2010 Jan 28.


We conducted a systematic review of the neuroimaging literature examining cognition in old and young adults and quantified these findings in a series of meta-analyses using the activation likelihood estimation technique. In 80 independent samples, we assessed significant convergent and divergent patterns of brain activity across all studies; where task performance was equated or different between age groups; and in four specific cognitive domains (perception, memory encoding, memory retrieval and executive function). Age differences across studies predominantly involved regions within the 'task-positive network' of the brain, a set of interconnected regions engaged during a variety of externally driven cognitive tasks. Old adults engaged prefrontal regions more than young adults. When performance was equivalent, old adults engaged left prefrontal cortex; poorly performing old adults engaged right prefrontal cortex. Young adults engaged occipital regions more than old adults, particularly when performance was unequal and during perceptual tasks. No age-related differences were found in the parietal lobes. We discuss the reliable differences in brain activation with regards to current theories of neurocognitive aging.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Diagnostic Imaging / methods
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Humans
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Meta-Analysis as Topic
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Perception / physiology