As we age we have increasing difficulty with phonological aspects of language production. Yet semantic processes are largely stable across the life span. This suggests a fundamental difference in the cognitive and potentially neural architecture supporting these systems. Moreover, language processes such as these interact with other cognitive processes that also show age-related decline, such as executive function and inhibition. The present study examined phonological and semantic processes in the presence of task-irrelevant information to examine the influence of such material on language production. Older and younger adults made phonological and semantic decisions about pictures in the presence of either phonologically or semantically related words, which were unrelated to the task. FMRI activation during the semantic condition showed that all adults engaged typical left-hemisphere language regions, and that this activation was positively correlated with efficiency across all adults. In contrast, the phonological condition elicited activation in bilateral precuneus and cingulate, with no clear brain–behavior relationship. Similarly, older adults exhibited greater activation than younger adults in several regions that were unrelated to behavioral performance. Our results suggest that as we age, brain–behavior relations decline, and there is an increased reliance on both language-specific and domain-general brain regions that are seen most prominently during phonological processing. In contrast, the core semantic system continues to be engaged throughout the life span, even in the presence of task-irrelevant information.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Cognitive Neuroscience
- Behavioral Neuroscience