Associations between a neurophysiological marker of central cholinergic activity and cognitive functions in young and older adults

Behav Brain Funct. 2012 Jun 20;8:17. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-8-17.


Background: The deterioration of the central cholinergic system in aging is hypothesized to underlie declines in several cognitive domains, including memory and executive functions. However, there is surprisingly little direct evidence regarding acetylcholine's specific role(s) in normal human cognitive aging.

Methods: We used short-latency afferent inhibition (SAI) with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) as a putative marker of cholinergic activity in vivo in young (n = 24) and older adults (n = 31).

Results: We found a significant age difference in SAI, concordant with other evidence of cholinergic decline in normal aging. We also found clear age differences on several of the memory and one of the executive function measures. Individual differences in SAI levels predicted memory but not executive functions.

Conclusion: Individual differences in SAI levels were better predictors of memory than executive functions. We discuss cases in which the relations between SAI and cognition might be even stronger, and refer to other age-related biological changes that may interact with cholinergic activity in cognitive aging.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / physiology
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Cholinergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Young Adult


  • Acetylcholine