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Emotional learning holds up with age

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Emotional memory may linger longer than factual memory--a finding that may lead to improved dementia tests and therapies.

BY RACHEL ADELSON

It's well known that memory tends to slacken with age, but some forms of it stay stronger longer, a new study suggests. Specifically, the study suggests that older people may retain the capacity for emotional learning longer than they retain the capacity for factual learning. If extended, the findings could support the use of

Emotional memory may linger longer than factual memory--a finding that may lead to improved dementia tests and therapies.

BY RACHEL ADELSON

It's well known that memory tends to slacken with age, but some forms of it stay stronger longer, a new study suggests. Specifically, the study suggests that older people may retain the capacity for emotional learning longer than they retain the capacity for factual learning. If extended, the findings could support the use of revamped tests to distinguish among types of memory loss in diseases such as Alzheimer's and encourage therapists to use (positive) emotional props to foster learning.

The finding comes from one of the first systematic studies of aversive (fear) conditioning and awareness across the adult life span, led by Duke University Medical Center's Kevin LaBar, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist, and Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, PhD, a neuropsychologist specializing in aging and Alzheimer's disease. Using fear conditioning as a model, they studied 87 adults and found that the rate at which people learn in this fundamental way appears to be the same in young, middle-aged and elderly adults.

Observers say the findings, which appear in the October issue of Behavioral Neuroscience (Vol. 118, No. 5), move the field forward.

"Evidence based on [age-related] fear conditioning is sparse, and the study has made an important contribution to fill this gap," note Christian Bellebaum, PhD, and Irene Daum, PhD, cognitive neuroscientists at Germany's Ruhr-University of Bochum, who contributed a theoretical comment on it in the same journal.

Squaring off in the lab

In aversive (fear/anxiety) conditioning, experimenters link an innocuous conditioned stimulus (CS) to a distressing unconditioned stimulus (US). The Duke team tested the hypothesis that this type of emotional learning lasts better over time than, say, memory for the capitals of all 50 U.S. states. To see if the capacity for fear conditioning lasts a lifetime, the Duke researchers tested fear conditioning in three groups of adults: 46 adults ages 18 to 29 years, 17 adults ages 51 to 64 years, and 24 adults ages 66 to 80 years. None showed signs of probable Alzheimer's disease.

Participants looked at a computer screen that displayed red or green squares--a CS. Sometimes they heard bursts of fairly loud white noise (this US was, at 100 to 105 decibels, considerably louder than normal conversation but not enough to cause sensorineural hearing loss). Participants who then showed anxiety when they saw the noise-linked colored squares--via increased electrical conductance on their sweaty palms--were said to be aversively conditioned.

LaBar says the measurement makes sense: Anxiety revs up the sympathetic nervous system, causing people to sweat more, which raises conductance.

"The individual is processing the conditioned stimulus as a danger or warning signal to prepare the body's defenses," LaBar explains.

Meanwhile, learners may or may not be aware that they are actually learning, as the process can be explicit (creating declarative memory) or implicit (generating procedural memory). To control for this potential complication, the Duke team asked participants after each session what they knew about the relationship between stimuli. Participants were "aware" if they reported that a given colored square predicted noise. And, as expected, a greater proportion of elderly participants were unaware of the CS-US contingency due to the age-related drop in declarative memory.

The researchers note a key finding: When the data were combined, it seemed that as a group, older people didn't appear to get anxious when seeing the squares that had been linked to loud noise. But grouped data can mask the truth. When the researchers controlled for (the lessened) awareness by dividing participants in each age group into "aware" and "unaware" subgroups, the differences melted away.

Says LaBar, "The apparent deficit with aging was really just an artifact of a greater proportion of unaware participants in the older group's average." By comparing young apples to old apples and young oranges to old oranges, the Duke researchers were able to see that regardless of age, more aware participants became anxious at one rate--and less aware participants became anxious at another rate. It was not age, but rather awareness, that differentiated rates of learning.

 

 

Tratto da: American Psycological Associaciation, prosegui nella lettura dell'articolo.

 

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