How Our Brain Slows Down the Effects of Aging

Summary: According to researchers, the way we categorize things changes over the course of our lifetime.

Source: RUB.

The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to put the world around us in order. Yet, our brain develops remarkable strategies to slow down the effects of aging.

In order to process the information that we receive every day, we build categories into which we sort everything that makes up the world around us. Neuroscientists from Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) found out: the way we categorise things changes throughout our lifetimes. Their research results were now published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

The team surrounding Sabrina Schenk and Dr. Boris Suchan observed young and older people during a categorisation task. The participants of the study were asked to sort circles with varying colour combinations into one of two categories. Some of the circles were very similar to each other; others were distinctly different. To which category the circles belonged was indicated by a feedback during the test.

Brain waves and gaze direction offer insights

The scientists not only documented the test subjects’ answers, they also recorded their brain waves via an EEG and used an eye tracker to trace their line of vision. The results showed that both young and older subjects had no difficulties categorising the similar looking circles – the learning mechanism of both groups were comparable. It was only in the later stages of the experiment, when distinct looking circles where shown, that differences between the test groups became apparent. Older subjects found it more difficult to categorise these exceptions than their younger counterparts.

Brain compensates with attentiveness

“There are two main strategies which we use to categorise things. While we perceive similar looking members of a category holistically, we must specifically learn exceptions and memorise them,” Schenk explains. “Older people find it harder to switch from one strategy to the other.” But measurements of brain waves also showed that the elderly develop a particular selective attentiveness.

Image shows an older lady reading from a tablet.
Older people pay more attention to the details and look more closely than younger people. Neurosciencenews image is adapted from the RUB press release.

To put it simply: they pay more attention to the details and look more closely than younger people. This is also confirmed by the eye tracker, which records in which direction the participants are looking. “To a certain extent, the brain is able to slow down negative effects of aging by increasing its level of attentiveness,” summarises Schenk.

Further studies with gamers

A computer simulation at Canada’s University of Western Ontario has confirmed the results of the scientists in Bochum. In a next step the RUB team would like to test people whose attention level has been especially trained, like that of avid computer players. If these gamers do particularly well in the categorisation task, then the results may help the elderly specifically train their attentiveness.

About this aging research article

Funding: The study was conceived as part of Collaborative Research Center 874, which has been funded since 2010 by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) to investigate memory formation and sensory processing.

Source: RBoris Suchan – RUB
Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the RUB press release.
Original Research: Abstract for “Out of sight, out of mind: Categorization learning and normal aging” by Sabrina Schenk, John P. Minda, Robert K. Lech, and Boris Suchan. in Neuropsychologia. Published online September 8 2016 doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2016.08.013

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]RUB. “How Our Brain Slows Down the Effects of Aging.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 14 September 2016.
<https://neurosciencenews.com/aging-effects-neuroscience-5047/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]RUB. (2016, September 14). How Our Brain Slows Down the Effects of Aging. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 14, 2016 from https://neurosciencenews.com/aging-effects-neuroscience-5047/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]RUB. “How Our Brain Slows Down the Effects of Aging.” https://neurosciencenews.com/aging-effects-neuroscience-5047/ (accessed September 14, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Abstract

Out of sight, out of mind: Categorization learning and normal aging

The present combined EEG and eye tracking study examined the process of categorization learning at different age ranges and aimed to investigate to which degree categorization learning is mediated by visual attention and perceptual strategies. Seventeen young subjects and ten elderly subjects had to perform a visual categorization task with two abstract categories. Each category consisted of prototypical stimuli and an exception. The categorization of prototypical stimuli was learned very early during the experiment, while the learning of exceptions was delayed. The categorization of exceptions was accompanied by higher P150, P250 and P300 amplitudes. In contrast to younger subjects, elderly subjects had problems in the categorization of exceptions, but showed an intact categorization performance for prototypical stimuli. Moreover, elderly subjects showed higher fixation rates for important stimulus features and higher P150 amplitudes, which were positively correlated with the categorization performances. These results indicate that elderly subjects compensate for cognitive decline through enhanced perceptual and attentional processing of individual stimulus features. Additionally, a computational approach has been applied and showed a transition away from purely abstraction-based learning to an exemplar-based learning in the middle block for both groups. However, the calculated models provide a better fit for younger subjects than for elderly subjects. The current study demonstrates that human categorization learning is based on early abstraction-based processing followed by an exemplar-memorization stage. This strategy combination facilitates the learning of real world categories with a nuanced category structure. In addition, the present study suggests that categorization learning is affected by normal aging and modulated by perceptual processing and visual attention.

“Out of sight, out of mind: Categorization learning and normal aging” by Sabrina Schenk, John P. Minda, Robert K. Lech, and Boris Suchan. in Neuropsychologia. Published online September 8 2016 doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2016.08.013

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