Deficient selection against irrelevant information has been proposed to underlie age-related cognitive decline. We recently reported evidence for maintained early sensory selection when older and younger adults used spatial selective attention to perform a challenging task. Here we explored age-related differences when spatial selection is not possible and feature-selective attention must be deployed. We additionally compared the integrity of feedforward processing by exploiting the well established phenomenon of suppression of visual cortical responses attributable to interstimulus competition. Electroencephalogram was measured while older and younger human adults responded to brief occurrences of coherent motion in an attended stimulus composed of randomly moving, orientation-defined, flickering bars. Attention was directed to horizontal or vertical bars by a pretrial cue, after which two orthogonally oriented, overlapping stimuli or a single stimulus were presented. Horizontal and vertical bars flickered at different frequencies and thereby elicited separable steady-state visual-evoked potentials, which were used to examine the effect of feature-based selection and the competitive influence of a second stimulus on ongoing visual processing. Age differences were found in feature-selective attentional modulation of visual responses: older adults did not show consistent modulation of magnitude or phase. In contrast, the suppressive effect of a second stimulus was robust and comparable in magnitude across age groups, suggesting that bottom-up processing of the current stimuli is essentially unchanged in healthy old age. Thus, it seems that visual processing per se is unchanged, but top-down attentional control is compromised in older adults when space cannot be used to guide selection.
Adult Aged Aging/physiology* Attention/physiology* Brain/physiology* Electroencephalography Evoked Potentials, Visual/physiology Female Humans Male Middle Aged Visual Perception/physiology* Young Adult