Plasticity of the Aging Brain

Self-guided retest learning in older adults: One earlier research focus of Dr. Yang is on self-guided retest learning (i.e., learning/improvement from repeated testing), as a basic form of cognitive plasticity, in older adults (Yang, 2011). The results suggest that retest learning can be extended to the oldest old who are aged 80 and above (Yang, Krampe, and Baltes, 2006). Both young old and oldest old adults are able to maintain the learning benefits over an 8-month period (Yang & Krampe, 2009). Furthermore, retest learning can occur at conceptual level, beyond the perceptual item-specific effects in advanced age (Yang, Reed, Russo, & Wilkinson, 2009; Yang, Reed, & Kuan, 2012). These findings challenge the traditional view that learning is limited, fragile, or short-lived in the very elderly, and provide important and inspiring insights in learning capacity of the aging brain. The results have been featured in a variety of media reports, including the Ryerson Media News, newspapers, radio, and TV shows. 

Plasticity of inhibition in the aging brain: Recently, in an effort to assess plasticity of inhibition, Wilkinson and Yang (2012) trained older adults with a 6-session self-guided training paradigm with an inhibition task, the Stroop task. The results demonstrated substantial practice-induced benefits, and the learning is not item-specific and not contingent to feedback. However, the training did not transfer to other tasks. Nevertheless, older adults maintained the training benefits for up to 3 years (Wilkinson & Yang, 2016, JGPS). Furthermore, we also found sizable retest practice effects in all three sub-functions (access, deletion, and restraint) of inhibition, but transfer effects were only evident for the near-near tasks (same task but with different items, e.g., letters instead of digits; Wilkinson & Yang, 2016, Neural Plasticity). These results shed important light on our understanding of the cognitive plasticity of inhibition, and will greatly inform the development of optimal cognitive remediation programs for older adults.

Exercise mind vs. exercise heart: Currently, the team of CAL is dedicated to an on-going research project “Training-Induced Cognitive and Neural Plasticity of the Aging Brain: Effects of Self-guided Cognitive and Physical Training Programs (PAB)”.  This project aims to compares the effects of cognitive and physical training in cognitive and neural plasticity in older adults. To evaluate neural plasticity, Event-Related Potential (ERP) technique will be adopted to record brain activity during executive function tasks and a working memory task administered at pretest and posttest sessions. In light of previous findings, we predict that the cognitive training effect will be ability-specific and more localized in electrical brain activity (specific to frontal lobe). In contrast, the physical training transfer effect will be smaller in magnitude, but broader in both behavioral and neural measures. We will also follow up to examine the long-term maintenance of the training benefits.