Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Reduced executive control is a hallmark of neurocognitive aging. Poor modulation of lateral pFC activity in the context of increasing task challenge in old adults and a “failure to deactivate” the default network during cognitive control tasks have been observed. Whether these two patterns represent discrete mechanisms of neurocognitive aging or interact into older adulthood remains unknown. We examined whether altered pFC and default network dynamics co-occur during goal-directed planning over increasing levels of difficulty during performance on the Tower of London task. We used fMRI to investigate task- and age-related changes in brain activation and functional connectivity across four levels of task challenge. Frontoparietal executive control regions were activated and default network regions were suppressed during planning relative to counting performance in both groups. Older adults, unlike young, failed to modulate brain activity in executive control and default regions as planning demands increased. Critically, functional connectivity analyses revealed bilateral dorsolateral pFC coupling in young adults and dorsolateral pFC to default coupling in older adults with increased planning complexity. We propose a default–executive coupling hypothesis of aging. First, this hypothesis suggests that failure to modulate control and default network activity in response to increasing task challenge are linked in older adulthood. Second, functional brain changes involve greater coupling of lateral pFC and the default network as cognitive control demands increase in older adults. We speculate that these changes reflect an adaptive shift in cognitive approach as older adults come to rely more upon stored representations to support goal-directed task performance.