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Neural plasticity underlying visual perceptual learning in aging


Healthy aging is associated with a decline in basic perceptual abilities, as well as higher-level cognitive functions such as working memory. In a recent perceptual training study using moving sweeps of Gabor stimuli, Berry et al. (2010) observed that older adults significantly improved discrimination abilities on the most challenging perceptual tasks that presented paired sweeps at rapid rates of 5 and 10 Hz. Berry et al. further showed that this perceptual training engendered transfer-of-benefit to an untrained working memory task. Here, we investigated the neural underpinnings of the improvements in these perceptual tasks, as assessed by event-related potential (ERP) recordings. Early visual ERP components time-locked to stimulus onset were compared pre- and post-training, as well as relative to a no-contact control group. The visual N1 and N2 components were significantly enhanced after training, and the N1 change correlated with improvements in perceptual discrimination on the task. Further, the change observed for the N1 and N2 was associated with the rapidity of the perceptual challenge; the visual N1 (120-150 ms) was enhanced post-training for 10 Hz sweep pairs, while the N2 (240-280 ms) was enhanced for the 5 Hz sweep pairs. We speculate that these observed post-training neural enhancements reflect improvements by older adults in the allocation of attention that is required to accurately dissociate perceptually overlapping stimuli when presented in rapid sequence. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled SI: Memory Å.

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