Working Memory Plasticity in Old Age: Practice Gain, Transfer, and Maintenance

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Abstract

Adult age differences in cognitive plasticity have been studied less often in working memory than in episodic memory. The authors investigated the effects of extensive working memory practice on performance improvement, transfer, and short-term maintenance of practice gains and transfer effects. Adults age 20–30 years and 70–80 years practiced a spatial working memory task with 2 levels of processing demands across 45 days for about 15 min per day. In both age groups and relative to age-matched, no-contact control groups, we found (a) substantial performance gains on the practiced task, (b) near transfer to a more demanding spatial n-back task and to numerical n-back tasks, and (c) 3-month maintenance of practice gains and near transfer effects, with decrements relative to postpractice performance among older but not younger adults. No evidence was found for far transfer to complex span tasks. The authors discuss neuronal mechanisms underlying adult age differences and similarities in patterns of plasticity and conclude that the potential of deliberate working memory practice as a tool for improving cognition in old age merits further exploration.

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