Tracking Age Differences in Neural Distinctiveness across Representational Levels

J Neurosci. 2021 Apr 14;41(15):3499-3511. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2038-20.2021. Epub 2021 Feb 26.


The distinctiveness of neural information representation is crucial for successful memory performance but declines with advancing age. Computational models implicate age-related neural dedifferentiation on the level of item representations, but previous studies mostly focused on age differences of categorical information representation in higher-order visual regions. In an age-comparative fMRI study, we combined univariate analyses and whole-brain searchlight pattern similarity analyses to elucidate age differences in neural distinctiveness at both category and item levels and their relation to memory. Thirty-five younger (18-27 years old) and 32 older (67-75 years old) women and men incidentally encoded images of faces and houses, followed by an old/new recognition memory task. During encoding, age-related neural dedifferentiation was shown as reduced category-selective processing in ventral visual cortex and impoverished item specificity in occipital regions. Importantly, successful subsequent memory performance built on high item stability, that is, high representational similarity between initial and repeated presentation of an item, which was greater in younger than older adults. Overall, we found that differences in representational distinctiveness coexist across representational levels and contribute to interindividual and intraindividual variability in memory success, with item specificity being the strongest contributor. Our results close an important gap in the literature, showing that older adults' neural representation of item-specific information in addition to categorical information is reduced compared with younger adults.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT A long-standing hypothesis links age-related cognitive decline to a loss of neural specificity. While previous evidence supports the notion of age-related neural dedifferentiation of category-level information in ventral visual cortex, whether or not age differences exist at the item level was a matter of debate. Here, we observed age group differences at both levels as well as associations between both categorical distinctiveness and item specificity to memory performance, with item specificity being the strongest contributor. Importantly, age differences in occipital item specificity were largely due to reduced item stability across repetitions in older adults. Our results suggest that age differences in neural representations can be observed across the entire cortical hierarchy and are not limited to category-level information.

Keywords: aging; episodic memory; fMRI; neural dedifferentation; neural distinctiveness; representational similarity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Retracted Publication

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Visual Cortex / cytology
  • Visual Cortex / growth & development
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*