Practice Makes It Better: A Psychophysical Study of Visual Perceptual Learning and Its Transfer Effects on Aging

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Previous studies on perceptual learning, acquiring a new skill through practice, appear to stimulate brain plasticity and enhance performance (Fiorentini & Berardi, 1981). The present study aimed to determine (a) whether perceptual learning can be used to compensate for age-related declines in perceptual abilities, and (b) whether the effect of perceptual learning can be transferred to untrained stimuli and subsequently improve capacity of visual working memory (VWM). We tested both healthy younger and older adults in a 3-day training session using an orientation discrimination task. A matching-to-sample psychophysical method was used to measure improvements in orientation discrimination thresholds and reaction times (RTs). Results showed that both younger and older adults improved discrimination thresholds and RTs with similar learning rates and magnitudes. Furthermore, older adults exhibited a generalization of improvements to 3 untrained orientations that were close to the training orientation and benefited more compared with younger adults from the perceptual learning as they transferred learning effects to the VWM performance. We conclude that through perceptual learning, older adults can partially counteract age-related perceptual declines, generalize the learning effect to other stimulus conditions, and further overcome the limitation of using VWM capacity to perform a perceptual task.

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