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Aging adults typically show reduced ability to ignore task-irrelevant information, an essential skill for optimal performance in many cognitive operations, including those requiring working memory (WM) resources. In a first experiment, young and elderly human participants of both genders performed an established WM paradigm probing inhibitory abilities by means of valid, invalid, and neutral retro-cues. Elderly participants showed an overall cost, especially in performing invalid trials, whereas younger participants' general performance was comparatively higher, as expected.Inhibitory abilities have been linked to alpha brain oscillations but it is yet unknown whether in aging these oscillations (also typically impoverished) and inhibitory abilities are causally linked. To probe this possible causal link in aging, we compared in a second experiment parietal alpha-transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) with either no stimulation (Sham) or with two control stimulation frequencies (theta- and gamma-tACS) in the elderly group while performing the same WM paradigm. Alpha- (but not theta- or gamma-) tACS selectively and significantly improved performance (now comparable to younger adults' performance in the first experiment), particularly for invalid cues where initially elderly showed the highest costs. Alpha oscillations are therefore causally linked to inhibitory abilities and frequency-tuned alpha-tACS interventions can selectively change these abilities in the elderly.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Ignoring task-irrelevant information, an ability associated to rhythmic brain activity in the alpha frequency band, is fundamental for optimal performance. Indeed, impoverished inhibitory abilities contribute to age-related decline in cognitive functions like working memory (WM), the capacity to briefly hold information in mind. Whether in aging adults alpha oscillations and inhibitory abilities are causally linked is yet unknown. We experimentally manipulated frequency-tuned brain activity using transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS), combined with a retro-cue paradigm assessing WM and inhibition. We found that alpha-tACS induced a significant improvement in target responses and misbinding errors, two indexes of inhibition. We concluded that in aging alpha oscillations are causally linked to inhibitory abilities, and that despite being impoverished, these abilities are still malleable.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurosci

Publication Date





4418 - 4429


ageing, alpha oscillation, inhibition, tACS, working memory