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The deterioration of the central cholinergic system in aging is hypothesized to underlie declines in several cognitive domains, including memory and executive functions. However, there is surprisingly little direct evidence regarding acetylcholine’s specific role(s) in normal human cognitive aging.
We used short-latency afferent inhibition (SAI) with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) as a putative marker of cholinergic activity in vivo in young (n=24) and older adults (n=31).
We found a significant age difference in SAI, concordant with other evidence of cholinergic decline in normal aging. We also found clear age differences on several of the memory and one of the executive function measures. Individual differences in SAI levels predicted memory but not executive functions.
Individual differences in SAI levels were better predictors of memory than executive functions. We discuss cases in which the relations between SAI and cognition might be even stronger, and refer to other age-related biological changes that may interact with cholinergic activity in cognitive aging.