Cognitive impairments due to normal aging may leave some older adults vulnerable to exploitation when making complex decisions with long-term impacts – like those pertaining to medical care and finances. Understanding what these impairments are and how they may be mitigated is the focus of a new UC Irvine study led by Aaron Bornstein, cognitive sciences assistant professor, with a $423,313 grant from the National Institute on Aging.

“Multi-step planning decisions, in addition to being relatively under-studied in older adults, are also distinct in that they depend on long-term, episodic memory,” says Bornstein. “Episodic memory is known to decline in age.”

His study will work to determine how decision errors might be explained by what is already known about memory decline due to the natural aging process. A connection between memory and decisions could also explain why decision-making ability seems to decline in individuals with age-related diseases including Alzheimer’s and Mild Cognitive Impairment, he says.

Study participants will take part in a series of decision and memory recognition tasks while brain activity is measured using fMRI. Bornstein will be focusing on the neural pathways involved in making decisions that require multi-step planning, or pulling together pieces of information from past experiences, and pattern separation which allows the brain to rapidly retrieve and re-use information even in the face of interference.

“Most importantly, the study will leverage what we know about episodic memory to test whether changing the way information is presented during training can help overcome the errors seen in decisions,” he says.              

Findings will help researchers understand if the pathways involved in these types of decisions overlap or impact one another in the aging process. They may also inform research into early detection and treatment of a wide range of diseases of aging, and help researchers understand how training could improve decision-making abilities.

Funding for this work will run through April 2023.

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