Semantic Congruence Drives Long-Term Memory and Similarly Affects Neural Retrieval Dynamics in Young and Older Adults

Front Aging Neurosci. 2021 Sep 14;13:683908. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2021.683908. eCollection 2021.


Learning novel information can be promoted if it is congruent with already stored knowledge. This so-called semantic congruence effect has been broadly studied in healthy young adults with a focus on neural encoding mechanisms. However, the impacts on retrieval, and possible impairments during healthy aging, which is typically associated with changes in declarative long-term memory, remain unclear. To investigate these issues, we used a previously established paradigm in healthy young and older humans with a focus on the neural activity at a final retrieval stage as measured with electroencephalography (EEG). In both age groups, semantic congruence at encoding enhanced subsequent long-term recognition memory of words. Compatible with this observation, semantic congruence led to differences in event-related potentials (ERPs) at retrieval, and this effect was not modulated by age. Specifically, congruence modulated old/new ERPs at a fronto-central (Fz) and left parietal (P3) electrode in a late (400-600 ms) time window, which has previously been associated with recognition memory processes. Importantly, ERPs to old items also correlated with the positive effect of semantic congruence on long-term memory independent of age. Together, our findings suggest that semantic congruence drives subsequent recognition memory across the lifespan through changes in neural retrieval processes.

Keywords: EEG; ERP; aging; congruence effect; long-term memory.