We explored age-related differences in executive function during selection of a target from among active representations. Refreshing (thinking briefly of a just-activated representation) is an executive process that foregrounds a target relative to other active representations. In a behavioral study, participants saw one or three words, then saw a cue to refresh one of the words, saw one word again and read it, or read a new word. Increasing the number of active representations increased response times (RTs) only in the refresh condition for young adults but increased RTs equally in all conditions for older adults, suggesting that they experienced interference from activated irrelevant information during perception and reflection. Consistent with this interpretation, in a functional magnetic resonance imaging study, young adults showed two areas of the left dorsolateral frontal cortex and a medial area of frontal cortex, including anterior cingulate, that were relatively more sensitive to number of active representations during refresh than read trials; for older adults these areas were equally sensitive to number of active items for refresh and read trials. Young and older adults showed activity associated with refreshing on trials requiring selection in left mid-ventral frontal cortex (an area associated with selection from active representations); older adults also showed activity in left anterior ventral frontal cortex (an area associated with controlled semantic activation). Our results support the hypothesis of an age-related decrease in ability to gate out activated but currently irrelevant information, and are consistent with a dissociation of function between eft mid-ventral and left anterior ventral frontal cortex.

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