Inhibitory control, like most cognitive processes, is subject to an age-related decline. The effect of age on neurofunctional inhibition processing remains uncertain, with age-related increases as well as decreases in activation being reported. This is possibly because reactive (i.e., outright stopping) and proactive inhibition (i.e., anticipation of stopping) have not been evaluated separately. Here, we investigate the effects of aging on reactive as well as proactive inhibition, using functional MRI in 73 healthy subjects aged 30–70 years.
We found reactive inhibition to slow down with advancing age, which was paralleled by increased activation in the motor cortex. Behaviorally, older adults did not exercise increased proactive inhibition strategies compared to younger adults. However, the pattern of activation in the right inferior frontal gyrus (rIFG) showed a clear age-effect on proactive inhibition: rather than flexibly engaging the rIFG in response to varying stop-signal probabilities, older subjects showed an overall hyperactivation. Whole-brain analyses revealed similar hyperactivations in various other frontal and parietal brain regions. These results are in line with the neural compensation hypothesis of aging: processing becomes less flexible and efficient with advancing age, which is compensated for by overall enhanced activation. Moreover, by disentangling reactive and proactive inhibition, we can show for the first time that the age-related increase in activation during inhibition that is reported generally by prior studies may be the result of compensation for reduced neural flexibility related to proactive control strategies.