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Age related changes in the brain systems underlying intertemporal choice


Samuel McClure

Despite the fact that physical health and cognitive abilities decline with age, emotion regulation remains stable or improves across the adult lifespan. The consequence of these changes for decision-making is complex and likely varies with choice domain. Here, we investigate this interaction in the domain of intertemporal choice: a broad range of everyday decisions (e.g. healthy eating, retirement savings, exercise) that require trade-offs between immediate satisfaction and long-term wellbeing.

Prior behavioral studies have reported conflicting trends in how intertemporal preferences change with age, with reports that discounting rates increase, decrease, or remain stable with increasing age. We hypothesize that these inconsistencies result partly from contextual effects such as differences in the framing of decisions. Specifically, the greater experience that comes with age may allow for more stable decision strategies that meliorate framing effects, particularly in familiar contexts. Understanding how choice framing influences behavior across the lifespan is important for developing interventions to improve choices that impact long-term wellbeing.

This project builds off previous work by the investigators showing that brain activity measured during intertemporal decision-making differs as a function of age1. Specifically, older adults rely more on the striatum and less on the prefrontal cortex when evaluating future rewards than do younger adults. We interpreted this finding to indicate a greater reliance on well-learned strategies for older relative to younger participants. This project aims to further test the consequences of these findings by (1) using anatomical measures of white matter integrity to test our hypothesis that frontal inputs to striatal valuation processes becomes stronger with age; (2) to test the hypothesis that these anatomical differences predict relative invariance in decision-making across choice frames. These results will contribute to a biologically based understanding of how decision- making changes with age that promises to improve efforts to promote healthy aging.