Aging Effects on Emotional Memory

November 23, 2011

Despite substantial age-related deficits in most cognitive abilities, troche emotional processing is well preserved in healthy aging, possibly due to a greater emphasis on emotion regulation. According to socioemotional selective theory (SST), aging is associated with motivational differences in allocating attention to emotional information that lead to an increase in the ratio of processing positive vs. negative information (valence shift). At the neural level, fMRI studies consistently show that aging is associated with alterations in amygdalar activity coupled with an increase in prefrontal cortex (PFC) activity, particularly in medial frontal regions associated with emotional regulation processes (St. Jacques et al., in press). We have called this pattern Frontoamygdalar Age-related Differences in Emotion or FADE (St. Jacques et al., 2009).

We have found FADE during both perception (St. Jacques et al., 2010) and memory encoding (St. Jacques et al., 2009). In a memory encoding study, older adults (OAs) showed reduced memory for negative stimuli, consistent with SST. In OAs, functional connectivity of the amygdala was reduced with the hippocampus, in keeping with the memory deficit, but increased with PFC, consistent with the notion increased emotion regulation.

To investigate the idea that emotion regulation in OAs is mediated by semantic elaboration, in another fMRI study, participants processed positive, neutral, and negative images under semantic or perceptual orienting tasks (Ritchey et al., 2011). Relative to YAs, OAs show enhanced activity in the medial and ventrolateral PFC in response to positive versus negative stimuli, but only during elaborative processing. These positive valence effects are predicted by individual differences in executive function in OAs for the deep but not shallow task. These findings provide support for the hypothesis that valence shifts in the aging brain are mediated by controlled processes such as semantic elaboration.

  • Ritchey, M., Bessette-Symons, B., Hayes, S.M., & Cabeza R. (2011). Emotion processing in the aging brain is modulated by semantic elaboration. Neuropsychologia, 4, 640-650. 
  • St. Jacques, P.L., Bessette-Symons, B., and Cabeza, R. (2009) Functional neuroimaging studies of aging and emotion: fronto-amygdalar differences during emotional perception and episodic memory. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 9, 792-810. 
  • St. Jacques, P., Dolcos, F., & Cabeza, R. (2009). Effects of aging on functional connectivity of the amygdala during subsequent memory for negative pictures: A network analysis of fMRI data. Psychological Science, 20, 74-84. 
  • St. Jacques, P., Dolcos, F., & Cabeza, R. (2010). Effects of aging on functional connectivity of the amygdala during negative evaluation: A network analysis of fMRI data. Neurobiology of Aging, , 31, 315-31. 
  • St. Jacques, P.L., Winecoff, A., & Cabeza, R. (in press). Emotion and ageing. In P. Vuilleumier, & J. Armony (Eds). Handbook of Human Affective Neuroscience. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK





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