Human behavioral data indicate that older adults are slower to perform lexical decisions (LDs) than young adults but show similar reaction time gains when these decisions are primed semantically. The present study explored the functional neuroanatomic bases of these frequently observed behavioral findings. Young and older groups completed unprimed and primed LD tasks while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was recorded, using a fully randomized trial design paralleling those used in behavioral research. Results from the unprimed task found that age-related slowing of LD was associated with decreased activation in perceptual extrastriate regions and increased activation in regions associated with higher level linguistic processes, including prefrontal cortex. In contrast to these age-related changes in brain activation, the older group showed a preserved pattern of fMRI decreases in inferior temporal cortex when LD was primed semantically. These findings provide evidence that older adults' LD abilities benefit from contexts that reduce the need for frontally mediated strategic processes and capitalize on the continued sensitivity of inferior temporal cortex to automatic semantic processes in aging.

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Published in Cerebral Cortex, v. 19, issue 11, p. 2671-2679.

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