Age related prefrontal compensatory mechanisms for inhibitory control in the antisaccade task
Cognitive decline during aging includes impairments in frontal executive functions like reduced inhibitory control. However, decline is not uniform across the population, suggesting individual brain response variability to the aging process. Here we tested the hypothesis, within the oculomotor system, that older adults compensate for age-related neural alterations by changing neural activation levels of the oculomotor areas, or even by recruiting additional areas to assist with cognitive performance. We established that the observed changes had to be related to better cognitive performance to be considered as compensatory. To probe this hypothesis we used the antisaccade paradigm and analyzed the effect of aging on brain activations during the inhibition of prepotent responses to visual stimuli. While undergoing a fMRI scan with concurrent eye tracking, 25 young adults (21.7 y/o ± 1.9 SDM) and 25 cognitively normal older adults (66.2 y/o ± 9.8 SDM) performed an interleaved pro/antisaccade task consisting of a preparatory stage and an execution stage. Compared to young adults, older participants showed a larger increase in antisaccade reaction times, while also generating more antisaccade direction errors. BOLD signal analyses during the preparatory stage, when response inhibition processes are established to prevent an automatic response, showed decreased activations in the anterior cingulate and the supplementary eye fields in the older group. Moreover, older adults also showed additional recruitment of the frontal pole not seen in the younger group, and larger activations in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during antisaccade preparation. Additional analyses to address the performance variability in the older group showed distinct behavioral-BOLD signal correlations. Larger activations in the saccade network, including the frontal pole, positively correlated with faster antisaccade reaction times, suggesting a functional recruitment of this area. However, only the activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during the antisaccade events showed a negative correlation with the number of errors across older adults. These findings support the presence of two dissociable age-related plastic mechanisms that result in different behavioral outcomes. One related to the additional recruitment of neural resources within anterior pole to facilitate modulation of cognitive responses like faster antisaccade reaction times, and another related to increased activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex resulting in a better inhibitory control in aging.