Published: 31-08-2017 11:10 | Updated: 31-08-2017 13:27

New thesis on individual differences in associative memory in older and younger adults

Nina Becker. Photo: Private

Hi Nina Becker, PhD student at the Aging Research Center. On September 1 you will defend your thesis "Inter-individual differences in associative memory: structural and functional brain correlates and genetic modulators" what´s the main focus of the thesis?

I investigated individual differences in associative memory in older and younger adults. We know that memory declines in aging, which impacts older adults’ everyday lives and their independence. Especially the decline of associative memory, for example to remember a face-name combination, where one left the car keys, or which medication to take at which time, influences our everyday life. However, there are pronounced individual differences in associative memory, leaving some adults with relatively intact, and others with severely deficient associative memory. The underlying sources of these individual differences remain unclear. In my thesis, I aimed to identify the neural underpinnings of individual differences in associative memory, with special regard to brain structure, function, and neurochemistry.

Which are the most important results?

We demonstrated that gray-matter volume in two brain regions called the hippocampus and lateral prefrontal cortex contributed to associative memory in younger and older adults, respectively. Moreover, we could show that memory performance is dependent on how the associative information is being learned. Finally, differences in associative memory go beyond gray-matter volume and brain activity, and extend to neurotransmitter systems. Especially dopamine seems to be relevant for associative-memory functioning.

How can this new knowledge contribute to the improvement of people’s health?

Studies have shown the potential for cognitive improvement across the life span, i.e., even at older ages, adults are able to enhance their cognitive abilities for example through memory interventions. However, to generate efficient and individualized interventions for older adults, factors determining maintenance or reduction of associative memory need to be identified. My thesis contributes to our understanding of how various brain factors are related to associative memory, and thus the processes that underlie successful associative operations. This knowledge might in the long future clear a way to develop individualized and efficient interventions to maintain individuals’ memory functions even in later life.

What´s in the future for you? Will you keep on conducting research?

I am currently applying for postdoc funding and will hopefully continue conducting research.