Not all of what is experienced can be consciously remembered later. These memory failures become increasingly common with age. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Audrey Duarte, Ph.D., of the Georgia Institute of Technology, is conducting research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and event-related potentials (ERPs) to understand the neural mechanisms by which attention affects the encoding and retrieval of details associated with previously experienced events (what is known as 'associative memory'). The cognitive processes and underlying brain regions that support the ability to remember some aspects of previously experienced events (e.g., spatial, and perceptual details) but not others are not well understood. Previous research suggests that directing one's attention toward particular event features facilitates memory accuracy for the attended features in both the young and old. How the brain carries out this memory facilitation is unknown. Dr. Duarte is investigating the spatial and temporal characteristics of neural mechanisms supporting associative memory encoding and retrieval using fMRI and ERP. This research project is also testing the possibility that in the presence of distracting stimuli, the attention-induced facilitation of associative memory accuracy and supporting neural activity is reduced in older adults compared to younger adults. Results from this project are expected to contribute to a deeper understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying the attentional control of memory in the young and old, as well as the underlying cause of memory failures across the lifespan.
Associative memory integrity is important for nearly all aspects of a person's life, from remembering the location of one's parked car to remembering the names of one's co-workers. It is therefore of great interest and importance to understand the neural mechanisms supporting associative memory and the factors underlying associative memory failures. With an understanding of how aging impacts these neural mechanisms, we can envision the development of simple learning techniques and interventions to improve memory functioning across the lifespan. To facilitate this translational process, the research is being broadly disseminated by the investigators at professional conferences and public lectures given to young and older adults in the community. The community presentations are part of a larger program organized by the investigators aimed at educating the public about the latest advancements in cognitive aging research. One of the major goals of this community outreach is to involve a more diverse population of researchers and research participants. This research program also provides unique educational and training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. Importantly, undergraduate and graduate students are being trained in research that has both scientific merit and real-world relevance. Students receive educational training in the cognitive neuroscience of memory and aging. Students receive hands on training in all aspects of conducting cognitive neuroscience research (i.e., experimental design, data acquisition, analysis and interpretation) using complementary and innovative neuroimaging methods. All the educational and research training activities associated with this project are aimed at increasing the students' potential for success in their future careers in research, academia, or industry.