Lifespan Age Differences in Memory Representations (LIME)

Minerva Research Group

How do we remember and why do we remember less when we age?

One of the central experiences of aging is the increasing fallibility of memory with advancing age—even in healthy older adults. Our project focuses on the cognitive and neural mechanisms that underlie memory formation, consolidation, and retrieval, and in particular, changes of these mechanisms across the lifespan. Our core question is concerned with how age-related decline in memory performance can be explained by differences in the way memory content is neurally represented. From a neuroscientific perspective, our memories are encoded in specific patterns of distributed neural activity. That is, these patterns can be regarded as memory fingerprints. During encoding of memories, specific representational patterns are formed that can be reactivated during later recall. We are striving to gain new insights into the way memory content is represented in children, younger, and older adults, by not only investigating behavioral responses but by linking them to neural processes in the brain as well.

We address this question in several transdisciplinary empirical studies that bring together questions, methods, and models from lifespan psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and computational neuroscience.

The project is led by Myriam Sander; it continues and broadens the work of her Minerva Research Group, which was established in 2016.

Research Area 1:

Age Differences in Similarity and Distinctiveness of Memory Representations

Are memories represented differently in older compared to younger adults? A long-standing hypothesis in the cognitive neuroscience of aging holds that a decrease in the distinctiveness of information representations underlies age-related declines in cognitive performance. This “dedifferentiation” hypothesis has been supported by various neuroimaging studies that have shown reduced distinctiveness of neural responses in older compared to younger adults, e.g. in face- and house-sensitive areas of the brain. However, different definitions and measures of distinctiveness impede comparability between studies, and – more importantly – most studies so far have not provided evidence for the hypothesized link between reduced neural distinctiveness and behavior. In our research, we set out to clearly establish this link to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms underlying age-related memory decline.

Main studies:

  • MERLIN: Memory encoding and retrieval across the lifespan
  • FACES AND HOUSES: Age differences in categorical vs. item-level distinctiveness
  • BEBO: Berlin-Bochum (meanwhile Berlin-Dortmund) cooperation on lifespan age differences in the quality of memory representations

Research Area 2:

Effects of Context on Memory Representations

Successful memory is highly dependent on contextual information (e.g., the spatial and temporal details of an event), and older adults are more dependent on contextual support for accurate memory functioning than young adults are. At the same time, they have difficulties in retrieving specific item–context associations. Our studies within this research area aim to obtain a better understanding of age differences in the contextualization of memories and the precise conditions for beneficial context reinstatement. In a large multi-modal study that combined electroencephalography (EEG), functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and eye tracking, we investigate how context shapes younger and older adults’ memories for objects.

Main studies:

  • CONOMY: Context effects on memory
  • REPLAY: Age differences in neural signatures of reinstatement

Selected Publications

Kobelt, M., Sommer, V. R., Keresztes, A., Werkle-Bergner, M., & Sander, M. C. (2021). Tracking age differences in neural distinctiveness across representational levels. The Journal of Neuroscience. Advance online publication.
Sommer, V. R., Mount, L., Weigelt, S., Werkle-Bergner, M., & Sander, M. C. (2021). Memory specificity is linked to repetition effects in event-related potentials across the lifespan. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 48, Article 100926.
Sander, M. C., Fandakova, Y., Grandy, T. H., Shing, Y. L., & Werkle-Bergner, M. (2020). Oscillatory mechanisms of successful memory formation in younger and older adults are related to structural integrity. Cerebral Cortex, 30(6), 3744–3758.
Sommer, V. R., Fandakova, Y., Grandy, T. H., Shing, Y. L., Werkle-Bergner, M., & Sander, M. C. (2019). Neural pattern similarity differentially relates to memory performance in younger and older adults. The Journal of Neuroscience, 39(41), 8089–8099.
Sander, M. C., Lindenberger, U., & Werkle-Bergner, M. (2012). Lifespan age differences in working memory: A two-component framework. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 36(9), 2007–2033.
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