Autonomic and electrocortical indices of performance monitoring and source memory discrimination in older and younger adults
Mathewson, Karen Janet.
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Reduced capacity for executive cognitive function and for the autonomic control of cardiac responsivity are both concomitants of the aging process. These may be linked through their mutual dependence on medial prefrontal function, but the specifics ofthat linkage have not been well explored. Executive functions associated with medial prefrontal cortex involve various aspects ofperformance monitoring, whereas centrally mediated autonomic functions can be observed as heart rate variability (HRV), i.e., variability in the length of intervals between heart beats. The focus for this thesis was to examine the degree to which the capacity for phasic autonomic adjustments to heart rate relates to performance monitoring in younger and older adults, using measures of electrocortical and autonomic activity. Behavioural performance and attention allocation during two age-sensitive tasks could be predicted by various aspects of autonomic control. For young adults, greater influence of the parasympathetic system on HRV was beneficial for learning unfamiliar maze paths; for older adults, greater sympathetic influence was detrimental to these functions. Further, these relationships were primarily evoked when the task required the construction and use of internalized representations of mazes rather than passive responses to feedback. When memory for source was required, older adults made three times as many source errors as young adults. However, greater parasympathetic influence on HRV in the older group was conducive to avoiding source errors and to reduced electrocortical responses to irrelevant information. Higher sympathetic predominance, in contrast, was associated with higher rates of source error and greater electrocortical responses tq non-target information in both groups. These relations were not seen for 11 errors associated with a speeded perceptual task, irrespective of its difficulty level. Overall, autonomic modulation of cardiac activity was associated with higher levels of performance monitoring, but differentially across tasks and age groups. With respect to age, those older adults who had maintained higher levels of autonomic cardiac regulation appeared to have also maintained higher levels of executive control over task performance.