February 04, 2005
Older Brains Faster At High Contrast Pattern Recognition

Aging minds do pick up some advantages.

Hamilton, ON. February 2, 2005 The long-held belief that older people perform slower and worse than younger people has been proven wrong. In a study published today in Neuron, psychologists from McMaster University discovered that the ageing process actually improves certain abilities: Older people appear to be better and faster at grasping the big picture than their younger counterparts.

"Going into the study, we knew that ageing changes the way people see the world," says Allison Sekuler, one of the senior authors and a Canada Research Chair at McMaster. "But these results are an unusual twist on the standard 'ageing makes you worse' story, and they provide clear insight into what is changing in the ageing brain."

Using computer-generated stimuli, the researchers monitored how much time subjects needed to process information about the direction in which a set of bars moved. When the bars were small, or when the bars were low in contrast (light gray vs. dark gray), younger subjects took less time to see the direction of motion. But when the bars were large, and high in contrast (black vs. white), older subjects outperformed the younger subjects.

"The results are exciting not only because they show an odd case in which older people have better vision than younger people, but also because it may tell us something about how ageing affects the way signals are processed in the brain" says Patrick Bennett, the other senior author, also a Canada Research Chair at McMaster.

The results suggest that as we age, the ability of one brain cell to inhibit another is reduced. That sort of inhibition helps young people find an object hidden among clutter, but it can make it hard to tune into the clutter itself. When the young brain sees big, high-contrast bars, it effectively tunes out because there is no object hidden in the bars. But older brains do not inhibit information in the same way, so they do not tune out the bars, and they can actually perform the task better.

"As we get older, it becomes harder to concentrate on one thing and ignore everything else," says Bennett. "It takes more effort to tune out distractions. We've seen it in cognition and speech studies, and now we see it in vision. Although we don't know if those are all linked, we think the visual effect is due to changes in the effectiveness of inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain." Neurotransmitters are chemical substances that can modify the way in which brain cells talk to one another. Some neurotransmitters enhance brain signals, and others inhibit them.

Is this change in ability the result of aging or of the accumulation of mental abilities? Is it desireable to be able to reverse this aspect of aging? What would be the consequences of restoring a more youthful reaction to high contrast and low contrast signals?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 February 04 02:29 AM  Brain Aging

Spikeballs said at February 5, 2005 7:25 AM:

The older demographic differs from the younger one not only in age but also in education methods (the education system changes over the years), exposure to television and computer games, etc. They could have used the same results to conclude that people who listened to Britney Spears in their youth are slower at high-contrast pattern recognition.

bfartan said at February 5, 2005 12:08 PM:

Spikeballs, your explanation(s) should be easily verifiable with cross-cultural surveys. We could run the same test on groups of people who have been relatively uninfluenced modern pop culture and mass media and see if we get similar results, people from, say, nonurban Mongolia or Afghanistan, or low-income rural Africa. I'd test the education system factor in areas that have only recently started to change--Iraq, ex-Warsaw Pact countries, etc.

Spikeballs said at February 5, 2005 12:50 PM:

I agree completely. I don't know how much scientific credibility these guys deserve, but I hope they took these factors into account.

Matt said at February 8, 2005 5:18 PM:

And thus more evidence for the evolutionary "point" of grandparents!

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