Age-related declines in relational encoding are well documented. It remains unclear, however, whether such declines reflect dysfunction of (1) ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) and deficient generation of associations; and/or (2) hippocampal dysfunction and impoverished binding of associations. In order to separate VLPFC and hippocampal contributions to relational encoding, we manipulated the generative demands of the encoding task by varying the number of semantic associations between the to-be-encoded information (three words). Thus, trials with fewer semantic associations (lower-association trials) require more generative processing during encoding, relative to trials in which more semantic associations are provided for binding (higher-association trials). Parametric modulation analyses on successfully encoded items revealed that, unlike younger adults, older adults did not show an up-regulation of VLPFC activity during lower-association trials. In contrast, hippocampal activity in both older and younger adults was greater in higher- relative to lower-association trials. Moreover, recognition accuracy improved significantly in both groups with the provision of more semantic associations, indicating that both younger and older adults benefitted from this form of encoding support. Our findings suggest that left VLPFC dysfunction may underlie relational encoding deficits in older adults, but that when provided with associations to bind, hippocampal activity in older adults is comparable to young, consistent with their increased recognition accuracy under conditions of encoding support.
Keywords: Aging; Associative encoding; Episodic; Parametric modulation; fMRI.