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Age differences in encoding-related alpha power reflect sentence comprehension difficulties

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Beese,  Caroline
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Vassileiou,  Benedict
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Friederici,  Angela D.
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Meyer,  Lars
Max Planck Research Group Language Cycles, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Citation

Beese, C., Vassileiou, B., Friederici, A. D., & Meyer, L. (2019). Age differences in encoding-related alpha power reflect sentence comprehension difficulties. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 11: 183. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2019.00183.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0004-5AC4-A
Abstract
When sentence processing taxes verbal working memory, comprehension difficulties arise. This is specifically the case when processing resources decline with advancing adult age. Such decline likely affects the encoding of sentences into working memory, which constitutes the basis for successful comprehension. To assess age differences in encoding-related electrophysiological activity, we recorded the electroencephalogram from three age groups (24, 43, and 65 years). Using an auditory sentence comprehension task, age differences in encoding-related oscillatory power were examined with respect to the accuracy of the given response. That is, the difference in oscillatory power between correctly and incorrectly encoded sentences, yielding subsequent memory effects (SME), was compared across age groups. Across age groups, we observed an age-related SME inversion in the alpha band from a power decrease in younger adults to a power increase in older adults. We suggest that this SME inversion underlies age-related comprehension difficulties. With alpha being commonly linked to inhibitory processes, this shift may reflect a change in the cortical inhibition–disinhibition balance. A cortical disinhibition may imply enriched sentence encoding in younger adults. In contrast, resource limitations in older adults may necessitate an increase in cortical inhibition during sentence encoding to avoid an information overload. Overall, our findings tentatively suggest that age-related comprehension difficulties are associated with alterations to the electrophysiological dynamics subserving general higher cognitive functions.