The reliable neuroimaging finding that older adults often show greater activity (over-recruitment) than younger adults is typically attributed to compensation. Yet, the neural mechanisms of over-recruitment in older adults (OAs) are largely unknown. Rodent electrophysiology studies have shown that as number of afferent fibers within a circuit decreases with age, the fibers that remain show higher synaptic field potentials (less wiring, more firing). Extrapolating to system-level measures in humans, we proposed and tested the hypothesis that greater activity in OAs compensates for impaired white-matter connectivity. Using a neuropsychological test battery, we measured individual differences in executive functions associated with the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and memory functions associated with the medial temporal lobes (MTLs). Using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging, we compared activity for successful versus unsuccessful trials during a source memory task. Finally, we measured white-matter integrity using diffusion tensor imaging. The study yielded 3 main findings. First, low-executive OAs showed greater success-related activity in the PFC, whereas low-memory OAs showed greater success-related activity in the MTLs. Second, low-executive OAs displayed white-matter deficits in the PFC, whereas low-memory OAs displayed white-matter deficits in the MTLs. Finally, in both prefrontal and MTL regions, white-matter decline and success-related activations occurred in close proximity and were negatively correlated. This finding supports the less-wiring- more-firing hypothesis, which provides a testable account of compensatory over-recruitment in OAs. [PDF]
Figure caption: (A) Negative correlation between EF scores and retrieval success activity (RSA) in prefrontal cortex (PFC). (B) Negative correlation between MF scores and RSA in the medial temporal lobe (MTL). (C) Positive correlation between EF scores and fractional anisotropy (FA) values in PFC. (D) Positive correlation between MF scores and FA values in MTL.