Older adults exposed to enriched environments (EE) maintain relatively higher levels of cognitive function, even in the face of compromised markers of brain health. Response speed (RS) is often used as a simple proxy to measure the preservation of global cognitive function in older adults. However, it is unknown which specific selection, decision, and/or motor processes provide the most specific indices of neurocognitive health. Here, using a simple decision task with electroencephalography (EEG), we found that the efficiency with which an individual accumulates sensory evidence was a critical determinant of the extent to which RS was preserved in older adults (63% female, 37% male). Moreover, the mitigating influence of EE on age-related RS declines was most pronounced when evidence accumulation rates were shallowest. These results suggest that the phenomenon of cognitive reserve, whereby high EE individuals can better tolerate suboptimal brain health to facilitate the preservation of cognitive function, is not just applicable to neuroanatomical indicators of brain ageing, but can be observed in markers of neurophysiology. Our results suggest that EEG metrics of evidence accumulation may index neurocognitive vulnerability of the ageing brain.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT:Response speed in older adults is closely linked with trajectories of cognitive ageing. Here, by recording brain activity while individuals perform a simple computer task, we identify a neural metric which is a critical determinant of response speed. Older adults exposed to greater cognitive and social stimulation throughout a lifetime could maintain faster responding, even when this neural metric was impaired. This work suggests EEG is a useful technique for interrogating how a lifetime of stimulation benefits brain health in ageing.
The Journal of Neuroscience
Society for Neuroscience