Age-related decline of precision and binding in visual working memory.
Peich M-C., Husain M., Bays PM.
Working memory declines with normal aging, but the nature of this impairment is debated. Studies based on detecting changes to arrays of visual objects have identified two possible components to age-related decline: a reduction in the number of items that can be stored, or a deficit in maintaining the associations (bindings) between individual object features. However, some investigations have reported intact binding with aging, and specific deficits arising only in Alzheimer's disease. Here, using a recently developed continuous measure of recall fidelity, we tested the precision with which adults of different ages could reproduce from memory the orientation and color of a probed array item. The results reveal a further component of cognitive decline: an age-related decrease in the resolution with which visual information can be maintained in working memory. This increase in recall variability with age was strongest under conditions of greater memory load. Moreover, analysis of the distribution of errors revealed that older participants were more likely to incorrectly report one of the unprobed items in memory, consistent with an age-related increase in misbinding. These results indicate a systematic decline with age in working memory resources that can be recruited to store visual information. The paradigm presented here provides a sensitive index of both memory resolution and feature binding, with the potential for assessing their modulation by interventions. The findings have implications for understanding the mechanisms underpinning working memory deficits in both health and disease.