Media Releases

Brain’s ability to selectively focus and “pay attention” diminishes with age

November 2, 2010

TORONTO, ON — A Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to study shows that visu­al atten­tion — the brain’s abil­i­ty to selec­tive­ly fil­ter unat­tend­ed or unwant­ed infor­ma­tion from reach­ing aware­ness — dimin­ish­es with age, leav­ing old­er adults less capa­ble of fil­ter­ing out dis­tract­ing or irrel­e­vant infor­ma­tion.

Fur­ther, this age-relat­ed “leaky” atten­tion­al fil­ter fun­da­men­tal­ly impacts the way visu­al infor­ma­tion is encod­ed into mem­o­ry.  Old­er adults with impaired visu­al atten­tion have bet­ter mem­o­ry for “irrel­e­vant” infor­ma­tion.  The research, con­duct­ed by mem­bers of U of T’s Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy, will be pub­lished Wednes­day, Novem­ber 3 in the Jour­nal of Neu­ro­science

In the study, the research team exam­ined brain images using func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) on a group of young (mean age = 22 years) and old­er adults (mean age = 77 years) while they looked at pic­tures of over­lap­ping faces and places (hous­es and build­ings). Par­tic­i­pants were asked to only pay atten­tion to the faces and to iden­ti­fy the gen­der of the per­son. Even though they could see the place in the image, it was not rel­e­vant to the task at hand

“In young adults, the brain region for pro­cess­ing faces was active while the brain region for pro­cess­ing places was not,” says Tay­lor Schmitz, lead author of the research paper. “How­ev­er, both the face and place regions were active in old­er peo­ple. This means that even at ear­ly stages of per­cep­tion, old­er adults were less capa­ble of fil­ter­ing out the dis­tract­ing infor­ma­tion. More­over, on a sur­prise mem­o­ry test 10 min­utes after the scan, old­er adults were more like­ly to rec­og­nize what face was orig­i­nal­ly paired with what house.”

The find­ings sug­gest that under atten­tion­al­ly-demand­ing con­di­tions, such as look­ing for one’s keys on a clut­tered table, age-relat­ed prob­lems with “tun­ing in” to the desired object may be linked to the way in which infor­ma­tion is select­ed and processed in the sen­so­ry areas of the brain.  Both the rel­e­vant sen­so­ry infor­ma­tion — the keys — and the irrel­e­vant infor­ma­tion — the clut­ter — are per­ceived and encod­ed more or less equal­ly. In old­er adults, these changes in visu­al atten­tion may broad­ly influ­ence many of the cog­ni­tive deficits typ­i­cal­ly observed in nor­mal aging, par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­ry.

The study was con­duct­ed by Eve De Rosa, Tay­lor Schmitz and Fred­er­ick H.T. Cheng, all of U of T’s Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy. Data was col­lect­ed in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy and at the Rot­man Research Insti­tute at Bay­crest Hos­pi­tal.  The research was sup­port­ed by the Cana­di­an Insti­tutes of Health Research and the Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Tay­lor Schmitz
Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy
416–978-1540 (lab)
416–720-5256 (mobile)

Eve De Rosa
Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy

Kim Luke
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to