A better understanding of age-related change in the attentional modulation of perceptual processing may help elucidate cognitive change. For example, increased cognitive interference due to inappropriate processing of irrelevant information has been suggested to contribute to cognitive decline. However, it is not yet clear whether interference effects observed at later stages, such as executive function or response selection, are caused by leaky attentional selection at early, sensory stages of processing. Here, we investigated attentional control of sensory selection by comparing younger and older adults' ability to sustain spatial selective attention to one of two centrally presented, overlapping rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) letter sequences, one large and one small. These stimuli elicited separable steady-state visual evoked potentials (SSVEP), which provide an index of early visual processing for each stimulus separately and are known to be modulated by selective attention. The condition of most interest required participants to attend to the larger letters while ignoring the smaller letters, as these foveally presented irrelevant stimuli were expected to present the strongest interference. Although the rapid presentation rates made the task demanding, detection ability did not differ between young and older adults. Accordingly, attentional modulation of SSVEP amplitudes was found in both age groups. Neither the magnitude nor the cortical sources of these SSVEP attention effects differed between age groups. Our results thus suggest that in the current task, the effect of voluntary spatial attention on sustained sensory processing in early visual areas is maintained in healthy old age.
Bibliographical noteWe thank Renate Zahn for assistance in data acquisition and Alper Açık and Björn Herrmann for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. Research was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, graduate programme “Function of Attention in Cognition”.
- sustained selective attention
- spatial visual attention
- visual cortex