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Implicit associative learning relates to basal ganglia gray matter microstructure in young and older adults.


Older adults are impaired at implicit associative learning (IAL), or the learning of relationships between stimuli in the environment without conscious awareness. These age effects have been attributed to differential engagement of the basal ganglia (e.g. caudate, globus pallidus) and hippocampus throughout learning. However, no studies have examined gray matter diffusion relations with IAL, which can reveal microstructural properties that vary with age and contribute to learning. In this study, young (18-29 years) and older (65-87 years) adults completed the Triplet Learning Task, in which participants implicitly learn that the location of cues predict the target location on some trials (high frequency triplets). Diffusion imaging was also acquired and multicompartment diffusion metrics were calculated using neurite orientation dispersion and density imaging (NODDI). As expected, results revealed age deficits in IAL (smaller differences in performance to high versus low frequency triplets in the late learning stage) and age-related differences in basal ganglia and hippocampus free, hindered, and restricted diffusion. Significant correlations were seen between restricted caudate diffusion and early IAL and between hindered globus pallidus diffusion and late IAL, which were not moderated by age group. These findings indicate that individual differences in basal ganglia, but not hippocampal, gray matter microstructure contribute to learning, independent of age, further supporting basal ganglia involvement in IAL.

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