Does compensatory neural activity survive old-old age?

Kirk R. Daffner, Xue Sun, Elise C. Tarbi, Dorene M. Rentz, Phillip J. Holcomb, Jenna L. Riis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One mechanism that may allow older adults to continue to successfully perform certain cognitive tasks is to allocate more resources than their younger counterparts. Most prior studies have not included individuals beyond their 70s. Here, we investigated whether compensatory increases in neural activity previously observed in cognitively high-performing young-old adults would continue into old-old age. Event-related potentials were recorded from 72 cognitively high performing subjects, aged 18 to 96. years old, while they participated in a subject-controlled novelty oddball paradigm in which they determined viewing duration of standard, target, and novel visual stimuli. Compared to young and middle-aged subjects, both young-old and old-old subjects exhibited an impairment of preliminary mismatch/match detection operations, indexed by an attenuated anterior N2 component. This may have placed a greater burden on the subsequent controlled decision-making process, indexed by the P3, necessitating the allocation of more resources. The relationship between age and resource allocation, as measured by P3 amplitude, from midlife to very old age (45-96. years old) followed an inverted u-shaped curve (quadratic function). It peaked between the late 60s and early 70s. Thereafter, there was an inverse relationship between age and resource appropriation. This relationship remained significant after controlling for differences in task performance and MMSE. Examining the size of the P3 component across different age groups suggests that although cognitively high performing adults in their early 80s exhibit a reduction in P3 amplitude, they have a relatively well-preserved capacity to appropriate resources. However, by the late 80s, there is a robust decline (relative to young-old adults) in the size of the P3. Our results indicate that when carrying out controlled processing linked to directing attention to salient events, cognitively high performers reach the boundary of their capacity, albeit relatively late in life. This limits their ability to appropriate additional resources as compensatory activity for age-related impairments in earlier visual processing, and suggests that such a mechanism does not tend to "survive" old-old age.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)427-438
Number of pages12
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognitive aging
  • Compensatory activity
  • ERPs
  • Old-old age
  • P3
  • Resource allocation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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