Age-related memory decline is associated with changes in neural functioning, but little is known about how aging affects the quality of information representation in the brain. Whereas a long-standing hypothesis of the aging literature links cognitive impairments to less distinct neural representations in old age ("neural dedifferentiation"), memory studies have shown that overlapping neural representations of different studied items are beneficial for memory performance. In an electroencephalography (EEG) study, we addressed the question whether distinctiveness or similarity between patterns of neural activity supports memory differentially in younger and older adults. We analyzed between-item neural pattern similarity in 50 younger (19-27 years old) and 63 older (63-75 years old) male and female human adults who repeatedly studied and recalled scene-word associations using a mnemonic imagery strategy. We compared the similarity of spatiotemporal EEG frequency patterns during initial encoding in relation to subsequent recall performance. The within-person association between memory success and pattern similarity differed between age groups: For older adults, better memory performance was linked to higher similarity early in the encoding trials, whereas young adults benefited from lower similarity between earlier and later periods during encoding, which might reflect their better success in forming unique memorable mental images of the joint picture-word pairs. Our results advance the understanding of the representational properties that give rise to subsequent memory, as well as how these properties may change in the course of aging.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Declining memory abilities are one of the most evident limitations for humans when growing older. Despite recent advances of our understanding of how the brain represents and stores information in distributed activation patterns, little is known about how the quality of information representation changes during aging and thus affects memory performance. We investigated how the similarity between neural representations relates to subsequent memory in younger and older adults. We present novel evidence that the interaction of pattern similarity and memory performance differs between age groups: Older adults benefited from higher similarity during early encoding, whereas young adults benefited from lower similarity between early and later encoding. These results provide insights into the nature of memory and age-related memory deficits.
Keywords: EEG; aging; episodic memory; representational similarity.
Copyright © 2019 the authors.