Research

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Dr. Angela Gutchess

Ongoing Research
Principle Investigator

Research in my laboratory explores the effects of age and culture on memory and social processes using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and behavioral measures. 

My research on aging and memory explores age differences in the specificity and accuracy of memory and in the plasticity of the neural resources that subserve memory processes. My previous research demonstrates that older adults can compensate for decreased medial temporal lobe activity by recruiting regions of prefrontal cortex to support encoding. However, age differences occur at the time of recognition in prefrontal regions when contexts interfere with the recognition of studied objects and in widespread brain regions when similar lures must be distinguished from studied pictures. 

My current work addresses the specificity of memory processes by exploring the extent to which:

  1. Age-related deficits occur due to a failure to engage sensory or controlled processes
  2. The loss of specificity and compensatory mechanisms documented with age for sensory domains also characterizes social domains, functions that are purportedly preserved with age.

My research on cross-cultural differences compares cognitive and social processes across East Asian and Western cultures. My previous fMRI research demonstrates that culture affects object processing, with Americans engaging object-specific regions to a greater extent than East Asians during the encoding of complex scenes. I have also explored the interaction of culture and aging, a line of work that pits the influence of life experiences and plasticity against neurobiological aging. 

We’ve identified cultural differences in the use of categories to organize memory for older, but not younger, adults. Our current work continues to address these themes, exploring the specificity of memory processes for cognitive and social domains, using both behavioral and neuroimaging methods. Although cultures may differ across these domains in the specificity of the details encoded into memory, aging is predicted to reduce the specificity of memory processes, thus eliminating cross-cultural differences.

A Sample of Our Research

Rosa, N.M. & Gutchess, A.H.

Source memory for action in young and older adults: Self vs. close or unknown others.
The present study examines whether close others exert similar effects on memory as the self by benefitting memory or increasing susceptibility to source memory confusions between self and other. Findings indicate that source memory for actions performed by the self is better than memory for actions performed by others in group activities. However, neither young nor older adults were more likely to confuse self with close other than unknown others. Results indicate that self-reference offers a benefit in memory that is distinct from that of other-referencing, but that this benefit is not enough to reduce source memory impairments with age.

Cassidy, B.S., Shih, J.Y., & Gutchess, A.H.

Age-related changes to the neural correlates of social evaluation.
Previous aging-related neuroimaging research has largely concentrated on items lacking socioemotional context, and has demonstrated pervasive age-related cognitive decline. However, more recent work suggests that there exists a specialized neural system underlying social information and memory that functionally, may be relatively spared with age. Older adults may selectively engage these regions depending on the orientation of the task at hand, consistent with findings that older adults adapt to cognitive decline by deploying resources when orienting to personally meaningful stimuli.

We investigated how presentation context affects the neural substrates of social cognition, and how these activations change with age using fMRI. Fifteen young and 15 older adults viewed faces paired with trait-inferring sentences, and were instructed to form impressions of the people on the screen. They also responded to a prompt that was either personally meaningful (“Do I want this person to play a role in my life?”), social but personally irrelevant (“Does this person have a pet?”) or non-social (“Does the sentence have any three-syllable words?”).

Conjunction analyses revealed that both young and older adults engaged regions widely implicated in mentalizing and social cognition when making social relative to non-social evaluations, including dorsal and ventral medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus, temporoparietal junction, and temporal pole. Additionally, older adults had enhanced activation relative to young in the right temporal pole when making social relative to non-social evaluations, suggesting more reliance on experience based social concepts when evaluating and forming impressions of others. Interestingly, young, but not older, adults had greater activation in bilateral posterior cingulate gyrus when deciding if individuals had pets relative to whether they would want the individual in their lives, potentially reflecting a focus on evaluating ambiguous social stimuli for later use. Overall, the findings demonstrate the preservation of the neural correlates underlying social evaluation and impression formation with age, and suggest that the functioning of these regions might be mediated by age-related changes in socioemotional goals.