Cognitive Decline and Reorganization of Functional Connectivity in Healthy Aging: The Pivotal Role of the Salience Network in the Prediction of Age and Cognitive Performances

Front Aging Neurosci. 2016 Aug 29;8:204. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2016.00204. eCollection 2016.


Normal aging is related to a decline in specific cognitive processes, in particular in executive functions and memory. In recent years a growing number of studies have focused on changes in brain functional connectivity related to cognitive aging. A common finding is the decreased connectivity within multiple resting state networks, including the default mode network (DMN) and the salience network. In this study, we measured resting state activity using fMRI and explored whether cognitive decline is related to altered functional connectivity. To this end we used a machine learning approach to classify young and old participants from functional connectivity data. The originality of the approach consists in the prediction of the performance and age of the subjects based on functional connectivity by using a machine learning approach. Our findings showed that the connectivity profile between specific networks predicts both the age of the subjects and their cognitive abilities. In particular, we report that the connectivity profiles between the salience and visual networks, and the salience and the anterior part of the DMN, were the features that best predicted the age. Moreover, independently of the age of the subject, connectivity between the salience network and various specific networks (i.e., visual, frontal) predicted episodic memory skills either based on a standard assessment or on an autobiographical memory task, and short-term memory binding. Finally, the connectivity between the salience and the frontal networks predicted inhibition and updating performance, but this link was no longer significant after removing the effect of age. Our findings confirm the crucial role of episodic memory and executive functions in cognitive aging and suggest a pivotal role of the salience network in neural reorganization in aging.

Keywords: aging; autobiographical memory; episodic memory; executive functions; functional connectivity; machine learning; resting state; rs-fMRI.