Early Selection Versus Late Correction: Age-Related Differences in Controlling Working Memory Contents

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We examined whether a reduced ability to ignore irrelevant information is responsible for the age-related decline of working memory (WM) functions. By means of event-related brain potentials, we will show that filtering is not out of service in older adults but shifted to a later processing stage. Participants performed a visual short-term memory task (change-detection task) in which targets were presented along with distractors. To allow early selection, a cue was presented in advance of each display, indicating where the targets were to appear. Despite this relatively easy selection criterion, older adults’ filtering was delayed as indicated by the amplitude pattern of the contralateral delay activity. Importantly, WM-equated younger adults did not show a delay indicating that the delay is specific to older adults and not a general phenomenon that comes with low WM capacity. Moreover, the analysis of early visual potentials revealed qualitatively different perceptual/attentional processing between the age groups. Young adults exhibited stronger distractor sensitivity that in turn facilitated filtering. Older adults, in contrast, seemed to initially store distractors and to suppress them after the fact. These early selection versus late-correction modes suggest an age-related shift in the strategy to control the contents of WM.

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