In older adults, difficulties processing complex auditory scenes, such as speech comprehension in noisy environments, might be due to a specific impairment of temporal processing at early, automatic processing stages involving auditory sensory memory (ASM). Even though age effects on auditory temporal processing have been well-documented, there is a paucity of research on how ASM processing of more complex tone-patterns is altered by age. In the current study, age effects on ASM processing of temporal and frequency aspects of two-tone patterns were investigated using a passive listening protocol. The P1 component, the mismatch negativity (MMN) and the P3a component of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to tone frequency and temporal pattern deviants were recorded in younger and older adults as a measure of auditory event detection, ASM processing, and attention switching, respectively. MMN was elicited with smaller amplitude to both frequency and temporal deviants in older adults. Furthermore, P3a was elicited only in the younger adults. In conclusion, the smaller MMN amplitude indicates that automatic processing of both frequency and temporal aspects of two-tone patterns is impaired in older adults. The failure to initiate an attention switch, suggested by the absence of P3a, indicates that impaired ASM processing of patterns may lead to less distractibility in older adults. Our results suggest age-related changes in ASM processing of patterns that cannot be explained by an inhibitory deficit.
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