The electrophysiological correlates of retrieval orientation—the differential processing of retrieval cues according to the nature of the sought-for information—were investigated in healthy young (18–20 years old) and older (63–77 years old) adults. In one pair of study–test cycles, subjects studied either words or pictures presented in one of two visually distinct contexts, and then performed a yes/no recognition task with words as test items. In another pair of study–test cycles, subjects again made recognition judgments, but were required, in addition, to signal the study context for each item judged “old.” Young subjects' event-related potentials (ERPs) for new (unstudied) test items were more negative-going when the study material was pictures rather than words, and this effect varied little between the two retrieval tasks. Replicating a previous report [Morcom, A. M., & Rugg, M. D. Effects of age on retrieval cue processing as revealed by ERPs. Neuropsychologia, 42, 1525–1542, 2004], the effects of study material on the ERPs of the older subjects were attenuated and statistically nonsignificant in the recognition task. In the source retrieval task, however, material effects in the older group were comparable in both onset latency and magnitude with those of the young subjects. Thus, the failure of older adults to demonstrate differential cue processing in tests of recognition memory likely reflects the adoption of a specific retrieval strategy rather than the incapacity to process retrieval cues in a goal-directed manner.

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