Healthy aging is associated with a multitude of structural changes in the brain. These physical age-related changes are accompanied by increased variability in neural activity of all kinds, and this increased variability, collectively referred to as “neural noise,” is argued to contribute to age-related cognitive decline. In this study, we examine the relationship between two particular types of neural noise in aging. We recorded scalp EEG from younger (20–30 years old) and older (60–70 years old) adults performing a spatial visual discrimination task. First, we used the 1/f-like exponent of the EEG power spectrum, a putative marker of neural noise, to assess baseline shifts toward a noisier state in aging. Next, we examined age-related decreases in the trial-by-trial consistency of visual stimulus processing. Finally, we examined to what extent these two age-related noise markers are related, hypothesizing that greater baseline noise would increase the variability of stimulus-evoked responses. We found that visual cortical baseline noise was higher in older adults, and the consistency of older adults' oscillatory alpha (8–12 Hz) phase responses to visual targets was also lower than that of younger adults. Crucially, older adults with the highest levels of baseline noise also had the least consistent alpha phase responses, whereas younger adults with more consistent phase responses achieved better behavioral performance. These results establish a link between tonic neural noise and stimulus-associated neural variability in aging. Moreover, they suggest that tonic age-related increases in baseline noise might diminish sensory processing and, as a result, subsequent cognitive performance.

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