Emotion processing in the aging brain is modulated by semantic elaboration

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The neural correlates of emotion processing have been shown to vary with age: older adults (OAs) exhibit increased frontal activations and, under some circumstances, decreased amygdala activations relative to young adults (YAs) during emotion processing. Some of these differences are additionally modulated by valence, with age-related biases toward positive versus negative stimuli, and are thought to depend on OAs' capacity for controlled elaboration. However, the role of semantic elaboration in mediating valence effects in the aging brain has not yet been explicitly tested. In the present study, YAs and OAs were scanned while they viewed negative, neutral, and positive pictures during either a deep, elaborative task or a shallow, perceptual task. fMRI results reveal that emotion-related activity in the amygdala is preserved in aging and insensitive to elaboration demands. This study provides novel evidence that differences in valence processing are modulated by elaboration: relative to YAs, OAs show enhanced activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC) and ventrolateral PFC in response to positive versus negative stimuli, but only during elaborative processing. These positive valence effects are predicted by individual differences in executive function in OAs for the deep but not shallow task. Finally, psychophysiological interaction analyses reveal age effects on valence-dependent functional connectivity between medial PFC and ventral striatum, as well as age and task effects on medial PFC-retrosplenial cortex interactions. Altogether, these findings provide support for the hypothesis that valence shifts in the aging brain are mediated by controlled processes such as semantic elaboration, self-referential processing, and emotion regulation. © 2010 Elsevier Ltd.

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