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Seniors draw on extra brainpower for shopping; additional brain areas recruited to make decisions by memory

The vmPFC is known to be involved in processing risk calculations and it has been shown help people assign values to rewards and emotions.

In this study, the more active the vmPFC was, the better participants performed at the task. Although researchers couldn’t prove that the heightened brain activity caused participants to perform better, “it seemed that (the enhanced brain activity) was actually helping them, it was beneficial to their performance,” Lighthall said.

Some of the higher-scoring subjects had good general strategies for memory. “They brought in stories about (the products) that related to their lives,” Lighthall said, or they translated the star ratings into words that were more meaningful to them, like “terrible” or “awesome.”

The vmPFC, it turns out, is also involved in autobiographical memory and self-referential thinking, Lighthall said.

The new results point to a need to simplify decisions for seniors, especially those that are more important than holiday shopping.

In medical-decision making, for example, selecting the best insurance plan can be intimidating. “What often happens is that people will delay the decision if it’s too challenging,” Lighthall said.

“Our study suggests that, to the extent that decision-making or economic choice rely on memory, those situations are really going to be harder and require a different type of processing for older adults,” she said.

But if the researchers’ interpretation of the vmPFC’s role is confirmed, then it could point to potential strategies to rehabilitate decision-making deficits in older adults, said Cabeza, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

“For example, future studies could identify the conditions that lead to vmPFC recruitment during decision-making and explore ways of promoting these conditions when older adults make decisions in real life,” Cabeza said.


This work was supported by National Institute on Aging (R01 AG034580, T32 AG00029).

CITATION: “Functional Compensation in the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Improves Memory-Dependent Decision in Older Adults,” Nichole R. Lighthall, Scott A. Huettel, Roberto Cabeza. Journal of Neuroscience, November 19, 2014. DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2888-14.2014

Duke University