Compensatory processing during rule-based category learning in older adults

Krishna L. Bharani, Ken A. Paller, Paul J. Reber, Sandra Weintraub, Jorge Yanar, Robert G. Morrison*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Healthy older adults typically perform worse than younger adults at rule-based category learning, but better than patients with Alzheimers or Parkinsons disease. To further investigate agings effect on rule-based category learning, we monitored event-related potentials (ERPs) while younger and neuropsychologically typical older adults performed a visual category-learning task with a rule-based category structure and trial-by-trial feedback. Using these procedures, we previously identified ERPs sensitive to categorization strategy and accuracy in young participants. In addition, previous studies have demonstrated the importance of neural processing in the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe for this task. In this study, older adults showed lower accuracy and longer response times than younger adults, but there were two distinct subgroups of older adults. One subgroup showed near-chance performance throughout the procedure, never categorizing accurately. The other subgroup reached asymptotic accuracy that was equivalent to that in younger adults, although they categorized more slowly. These two subgroups were further distinguished via ERPs. Consistent with the compensation theory of cognitive aging, older adults who successfully learned showed larger frontal ERPs when compared with younger adults. Recruitment of prefrontal resources may have improved performance while slowing response times. Additionally, correlations of feedback-locked P300 amplitudes with category-learning accuracy differentiated successful younger and older adults. Overall, the results suggest that the ability to adapt ones behavior in response to feedback during learning varies across older individuals, and that the failure of some to adapt their behavior may reflect inadequate engagement of prefrontal cortex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)304-326
Number of pages23
JournalAging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 3 2016


  • Category learning
  • aging
  • event-related potentials
  • rule-based learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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