Postdoc, Dr. Sarah Johnson & colleagues publish in July 2016 Learning & Memory

Johnson SA, Sacks PK, Turner SM, Gaynor LS, Ormerod BK, Maurer AP, Bizon JL, Burke SN. Discrimination performance in aging is vulnerable to interference and dissociable from spatial memory. Learn Mem 2016; 23(7):339-348.

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Hippocampal-dependent episodic memory and stimulus discrimination abilities are both compromised in the elderly. The reduced capacity to discriminate between similar stimuli likely contributes to multiple aspects of age-related cognitive impairment; however, the association of these behaviors within individuals has never been examined in an animal model. In the present study, young and aged F344×BN F1 hybrid rats were cross-characterized on the Morris water maze test of spatial memory and a dentate gyrus-dependent match-to-position test of spatial discrimination ability. Aged rats showed overall impairments relative to young in spatial learning and memory on the water maze task. Although young and aged learned to apply a match-to-position response strategy in performing easy spatial discriminations within a similar number of trials, a majority of aged rats were impaired relative to young in performing difficult spatial discriminations on subsequent tests. Moreover, all aged rats were susceptible to cumulative interference during spatial discrimination tests, such that error rate increased on later trials of test sessions. These data suggest that when faced with difficult discriminations, the aged rats were less able to distinguish current goal locations from those of previous trials. Increasing acetylcholine levels with donepezil did not improve aged rats’ abilities to accurately perform difficult spatial discriminations or reduce their susceptibility to interference. Interestingly, better spatial memory abilities were not significantly associated with higher performance on difficult spatial discriminations. This observation, along with the finding that aged rats made more errors under conditions in which interference was high, suggests that match-to-position spatial discrimination performance may rely on extra-hippocampal structures such as the prefrontal cortex, in addition to the dentate gyrus.

© 2016 Johnson et al.; Published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.