There is widespread evidence that memory deteriorates with aging, however the exact mechanisms that underlie these changes are not well understood. Given the growing size of the aging population, there is an imperative to study age-related neurocognitive changes in order to better parse healthy from pathological aging. Using a behavioral paradigm that taxes pattern separation (the ability to differentiate novel yet similar information from previously learned information and thus avoid interference), we investigated age-related neural changes in the human hippocampus using high-resolution (1.5 mm isotropic) blood-oxygenation level-dependent fMRI. Recent evidence from animal studies suggests that hyperactivity in the CA3 region of the hippocampus may underlie behavioral deficits in pattern separation in aged rats. Here, we report evidence that is consistent with findings from the animal studies. We found a behavioral impairment in pattern separation in a sample of healthy older adults compared with young controls. We also found a related increase in CA3/dentate gyrus activity levels during an fMRI contrast that stresses pattern separation abilities. In a detailed analysis of behavior, we also found that the pattern of impairment was consistent with the predictions of the animal model, where larger changes in the input (greater dissimilarity) were required in order for elderly adults to successfully encode new information as distinct from previously learned information. These findings are also consistent with recent fMRI and behavioral reports in healthy aging, and further suggest that a specific functional deficit in the CA3/dentate network contributes to memory difficulties with aging.
Copyright © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.