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DOI: 10.1101/2023.05.24.542148

Dissociative effects of age on neural differentiation at the category and item level

S.Srokova A. N. Z. Aktas J. D. Koen M. D. Rugg
Increasing age is associated with age-related neural dedifferentiation, a reduction in the selectivity of neural representations which has been proposed to contribute to cognitive decline in older age. Recent findings indicate that when operationalized in terms of selectivity for different perceptual categories, age-related neural dedifferentiation, and the apparent age-invariant association of neural selectivity with cognitive performance, are largely restricted to the cortical regions typically recruited during scene processing. It is currently unknown whether this category-level dissociation extends to metrics of neural selectivity defined at the level of individual stimulus items. Here, we examined neural selectivity at the category and item levels using multivoxel pattern similarity analysis (PSA) of fMRI data. Healthy young and older male and female adults viewed images of objects and scenes. Some items were presented singly, while others were either repeated or followed by a 'similar lure'. Consistent with recent findings, category-level PSA revealed robustly lower differentiation in older than younger adults in scene-selective, but not object-selective, cortical regions. By contrast, at the item level, robust age-related declines in neural differentiation were evident for both stimulus categories. Moreover, we identified an age-invariant association between category-level scene-selectivity in the parahippocampal place area and subsequent memory performance, but no such association was evident for item-level metrics. Lastly, category and item-level neural metrics were uncorrelated. Thus, the present findings suggest that age-related category- and item-level dedifferentiation depend on distinct neural mechanisms.