Intact Reinforcement Learning But Impaired Attentional Control During Multidimensional Probabilistic Learning in Older Adults

J Neurosci. 2020 Jan 29;40(5):1084-1096. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0254-19.2019. Epub 2019 Dec 11.


To efficiently learn optimal behavior in complex environments, humans rely on an interplay of learning and attention. Healthy aging has been shown to independently affect both of these functions. Here, we investigate how reinforcement learning and selective attention interact during learning from trial and error across age groups. We acquired behavioral and fMRI data from older and younger adults (male and female) performing two probabilistic learning tasks with varying attention demands. Although learning in the unidimensional task did not differ across age groups, older adults performed worse than younger adults in the multidimensional task, which required high levels of selective attention. Computational modeling showed that choices of older adults are better predicted by reinforcement learning than Bayesian inference, and that older adults rely more on reinforcement learning-based predictions than younger adults. Conversely, a higher proportion of younger adults' choices was predicted by a computationally demanding Bayesian approach. In line with the behavioral findings, we observed no group differences in reinforcement-learning related fMRI activation. Specifically, prediction-error activation in the nucleus accumbens was similar across age groups, and numerically higher in older adults. However, activation in the default mode was less suppressed in older adults in for higher attentional task demands, and the level of suppression correlated with behavioral performance. Our results indicate that healthy aging does not significantly impair simple reinforcement learning. However, in complex environments, older adults rely more heavily on suboptimal reinforcement-learning strategies supported by the ventral striatum, whereas younger adults use attention processes supported by cortical networks.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Changes in the way that healthy human aging affects how we learn to optimally behave are not well understood; it has been suggested that age-related declines in dopaminergic function may impair older adult's ability to learn from reinforcement. In the present fMRI experiment, we show that learning and nucleus accumbens activation in a simple unidimensional reinforcement-learning task was not significantly affected by age. However, in a more complex multidimensional task, older adults showed worse performance and relied more on reinforcement-learning strategies than younger adults, while failing to disengage their default-mode network during learning. These results imply that older adults are only impaired in reinforcement learning if they additionally need to learn which dimensions of the environment are currently important.

Keywords: aging; attention; default mode network; fMRI; nucleus accumbens; reinforcement learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Psychological
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology*
  • Probability
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Young Adult