Amygdala Responses to Emotionally Valenced Stimuli in Older and Younger Adults

Authors: Mara Mather, University of California, Santa Cruz; Turhan Canli, State University of New York, Stony Brook; Tammy English, Sue Whitfield, Peter Wais, Kevin Ochsner, John D.E. Gabreli, and Laura Carstensen, Stanford University

Publication: Psychological Science

Year: 2003

Focus Area: Aging, Emotion, Memory

Relevance: Focusing on the positive and forgetting the negative emotional content of a sales pitch or public service announcement may impact whether a potential fraud victim is vulnerable or informed. Successful messages (fraudulent or educational) would account for a shift in mental priorities with age.

Summary: This article argues that increases in age lead to a redistribution – as opposed to a decrease – in cognitive functioning when processing emotional information.  This is evaluated by measuring the activity of the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with memory and emotional attention.

  • Previous studies showed that older adults tend to retain less negative emotional information than do younger adults.  There is a tendency for this reduction to be interpreted as cognitive decline with age.
  • This article demonstrates that the activity of the amygdala decreases with age only for negative emotional images, and maintains or increases in response to positive images.
  • The changes in emotional memory with age may be the result of a reallocation of cognitive processes, with greater energy devoted to positive emotional content.
  • Both younger and older adults show greater amygdala activation for emotional than for neutral images, corresponding with our knowledge that all ages’ are better able to remember emotionally significant information.

Author Abstract: As they age, adults experience less negative emotion, come to pay less attention to negative than to positive emotional stimuli, and become less likely to remember negative than positive emotional materials. This profile of findings suggests that, with age, the amygdala may show decreased reactivity to negative information while maintaining or increasing its reactivity to positive information. We used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess whether amygdala activation in response to positive and negative emotional pictures changes with age. Both older and younger adults showed greater activation in the amygdala for emotional than for neutral pictures; however, for older adults, seeing positive pictures led to greater amygdala activation than seeing negative pictures, whereas this was not the case for younger adults.

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