A "concrete view" of aging: Event related potentials reveal age-related changes in basic integrative processes in language

Hsu Wen Huang, Aaron M. Meyer, Kara D. Federmeier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Normal aging is accompanied by changes in both structural and functional cerebral organization. Although verbal knowledge seems to be relatively stable across the lifespan, there are age-related changes in the rapid use of that knowledge during on-line language processing. In particular, aging has been linked to reduce effectiveness in preparing for upcoming words and building an integrated sentence-level representation. The current study assessed whether such age-related changes extend even to much simpler language units, such as modification relations between a centrally presented adjective and a lateralized noun. Adjectives were used to elicit concrete and abstract meanings of the same, polysemous lexical items (e.g., "green book" vs "interesting book"). Consistent with findings that lexical information is preserved with age, older adults, like younger adults, exhibited concreteness effects at the adjectives, with more negative responses to concrete adjectives over posterior (300-500. ms; N400) and frontal (300-900. ms) channels. However, at the noun, younger adults exhibited concreteness-based predictability effects linked to left hemisphere processing and imagery effects linked to right hemisphere processing, contingent on whether the adjectives and nouns formed a cohesive conceptual unit. In contrast, older adults showed neither effect, suggesting that they were less able to rapidly link the adjective-noun meaning to form an integrated conceptual representation. Age-related changes in language processing may thus be more pervasive than previously realized.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)26-35
Number of pages10
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Aging
  • Concreteness effects
  • Event-related potentials
  • Frontal imagery effects
  • Language processing
  • Laterality
  • N400

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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