Brain signal variability is modulated as a function of internal and external demand in younger and older adults

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Variability in the Blood Oxygen-Level Dependent (BOLD) signal from fMRI is often associated with better cognitive performance and younger age. It has been proposed that neural variability enables flexible responding to uncertainty in a changing environment. However, signal variability reflecting environmental uncertainty may reduce to the extent that a task depends on internally-directed attention and is supported by neural “solutions” that are schematic and relatively stable within each individual. Accordingly, we examined the hypothesis that BOLD variability will be low at rest, higher during internally-directed tasks, and higher still during externally-directed tasks, and that this effect will be reduced with aging. Modulation of BOLD variability across conditions was consistent with these hypotheses, and was associated with faster and more stable behavioral performance in both young and older adults. These data support the idea that brain signal variability may modulate in response to environmental uncertainty, which is presumed to be greater in the external environment than in the internal milieu. Reduced flexibility of signal variability with age may indicate less ability to switch between internal and external brain states.

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