The aim of this study was to examine whether older adults use the same task-specific brain activation patterns during two different bimanual hand movement tasks as younger adults. Functional magnetic resonance brain imaging was performed in 18 younger (mean age: 30.3 ± 3.6 years) and 11 older adults (62.6 ± 6.8 years) during the execution of cooperative (mimicking opening a bottle) or non-cooperative (bimanual pro-/supination) hand movements. We expected to see a stronger task-specific involvement of the secondary somatosensory cortex (S2) during cooperative hand movements in older compared to younger adults. However, S2 activation was present in both groups during the cooperative task and was only significantly stronger compared to the non-cooperative task in younger adults. In a whole brain-analysis, the contrast between older and younger adults revealed a hyperactivation of the bilateral dorsal premotor cortex (precentral gyrus), right thalamus, right frontal operculum, anterior cingulate cortex, and supplementary motor areas in older adults (p < 0.001), with some of them being visible after correcting for age. Age was positively associated with fMRI signal changes in these regions across the whole sample. Older adults showed reduced gray matter volume but not in regions showing task-related fMRI group differences. We also found an increase in functional connectivity between SMA, M1, thalamus, and precentral gyri in older adults. In contrast, younger adults showed hyperconnectivity between S2 and S1. We conclude that older compared to younger adults show age-related functional neuroplastic changes in brain regions involved in motor control and performance.
Keywords: functional magnetic resonance imaging; healthy aging; neural coupling; neuroplastic changes; somatosensory cortex.