Patterns of on-task thought in older age are associated with changes in functional connectivity between temporal and prefrontal regions

Brain Cogn. 2019 Jun;132:118-128. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2019.04.002. Epub 2019 Apr 15.


Humans spend a large proportion of their time engaged in thoughts unrelated to the task being performed, a tendency that declines with age. However, a clear neuro-cognitive account of what underlies this decrease is lacking. This study addresses the possibility that age-related changes in off-task thinking are correlated with changes in the intrinsic organisation of the brain. Laboratory measures of ongoing thought were recorded in young and older individuals, who also participated in a resting state fMRI experiment. Older individuals showed reduced connectivity between the left anterior temporal lobe with prefrontal aspects of the DMN. We found that off-task thinking did not increase when task demands were lower for older adults, which is a pattern repeatedly seen in younger individuals. Finally, we demonstrated that these neural and thought patterns were linked - for younger participants only, reductions in the strength of connectivity were related to a greater shift towards off-task thoughts when task demands decreased. Importantly, in the older individuals, lower connectivity between the same regions was linked to preserved performance on a creativity task. These data suggest that the age-related reduction of off-task thought may be related to reduced communication between temporal and prefrontal DMN regions in ageing.

Keywords: Ageing; Connectivity; Mind-wandering; Self-generated thoughts; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology
  • Creativity
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neural Pathways / diagnostic imaging
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Temporal Lobe / diagnostic imaging*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Thinking*
  • Young Adult