Error detection across the adult lifespan: Electrophysiological evidence for age-related deficits

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With increasing age, cognitive control processes steadily decline. Prior research suggests that healthy older adults have a generally intact performance monitoring system, but show specific deficits in error awareness, i.e., the ability to detect committed errors. We examined the neural processing of errors across the adult lifespan (69 participants; age range 20–72 years) by analysing the error (-related) negativity (Ne/ERN) and the error positivity (Pe) using an adapted version of the Go/Nogo task.

At a stable overall error rate, higher age was associated with a greater proportion of undetected errors. While the Ne/ERN was associated with the processing of errors in general, the Pe amplitude was modulated by detected errors only. Furthermore, the Pe amplitude for detected errors was significantly smaller in older adults, in contrast to the Ne/ERN amplitude which did not show age-related changes. Structural path models suggested that through those age-related changes in Pe amplitude, an indirect effect on the performance was observed.

Our results confirm and extend previous extreme-group based findings about specific deficits in error detection associated with higher age using age as a continuous predictor. Age-related reductions in Pe amplitude, associated with more undetected errors, are independent of early error processing, as evidenced by the preserved Ne/ERN.

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