Age-related changes in the neural networks supporting semantic cognition: A meta-analysis of 47 functional neuroimaging studies

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HighlightsMeta-analysis of activation in young and older adults on semantic tasks.Young and old activated broadly similar, left-lateralised regions.Older people showed less activation in the typical left-hemisphere semantic network.Older people showed more activation in right frontal and parietal regions.Shift from semantic-specific to domain-general neural resources in later life.Semantic cognition is central to understanding of language and the world and, unlike many cognitive domains, is thought to show little age-related decline. We investigated age-related differences in the neural basis of this critical cognitive domain by performing an activation likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies comparing young and older people. On average, young people outperformed their older counterparts during semantic tasks. Overall, both age groups activated similar left-lateralised regions. However, older adults displayed less activation than young people in some elements of the typical left-hemisphere semantic network, including inferior prefrontal, posterior temporal and inferior parietal cortex. They also showed greater activation in right frontal and parietal regions, particularly those held to be involved in domain-general controlled processing, and principally when they performed more poorly than the young. Thus, semantic processing in later life is associated with a shift from semantic-specific to domain-general neural resources, consistent with the theory of neural dedifferentiation, and a performance-related reduction in prefrontal lateralisation, which may reflect a response to increased task demands.

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