Objective: The purpose of this study was to explore the age-related brain activation changes during a word-matching semantic-category-based task, which required either repeating or changing a semantic rule to be applied. In order to do so, a word-semantic rule-based task was adapted from the Wisconsin Sorting Card Test, involving the repeated feedback-driven selection of given pairs of words based on semantic category-based criteria. Method: Forty healthy adults (20 younger and 20 older) performed a word-matching task while undergoing a fMRI scan in which they were required to pair a target word with another word from a group of three words. The required pairing is based on three word-pair semantic rules which correspond to different levels of semantic control demands: functional relatedness, moderately typical-relatedness (which were considered as low control demands), and atypical-relatedness (high control demands). The sorting period consisted of a continuous execution of the same sorting rule and an inferred trial-by-trial feedback was given. Results: Behavioral performance revealed increases in response times and decreases of correct responses according to the level of semantic control demands (functional vs. typical vs. atypical) for both age groups (younger and older) reflecting graded differences in the repetition of the application of a given semantic rule. Neuroimaging findings of significant brain activation showed two main results: (1) Greater task-related activation changes for the repetition of the application of atypical rules relative to typical and functional rules, and (2) Changes (older > younger) in the inferior prefrontal regions for functional rules and more extensive and bilateral activations for typical and atypical rules. Regarding the inter-semantic rules comparison, only task-related activation differences were observed for functional > typical (e.g., inferior parietal and temporal regions bilaterally) and atypical > typical (e.g., prefrontal, inferior parietal, posterior temporal, and subcortical regions). Conclusion: These results suggest that healthy cognitive aging relies on the adaptive changes of inferior prefrontal resources involved in the repetitive execution of semantic rules, thus reflecting graded differences in support of task demands.
Keywords: fMRI; healthy aging; neuro-functional reorganization; rule repetition; semantic control demands; word-matching.