Federmeier, K.D., Kutas, M., & Schul, R. (2010) Age-related and individual differences in the use of prediction during language comprehension. Brain & Language, 115(3), 149-161.
During sentence comprehension, older adults are less likely than younger adults to predict features of likely upcoming words. A pair of experiments assessed whether such differences would extend to tasks with reduced working memory demands and time pressures. In Experiment 1, event-related brain potentials were measured as younger and older adults read short phrases cuing antonyms or category exemplars, followed three seconds later by targets that were either congruent or incongruent and, for congruent category exemplars, of higher or lower typicality. When processing the less expected low typicality targets, younger – but not older – adults elicited a prefrontal positivity (500–900 ms) that has been linked to processing consequences of having predictions disconfirmed. Thus, age-related changes in prediction during comprehension generalize across task circumstances. Analyses of individual differences revealed that older adults with higher category fluency were more likely to show the young-like pattern. Experiment 2 showed that these age-related differences were not due to simple slowing of language production mechanisms, as older adults generated overt responses to the cues as quickly as – and more accurately than – younger adults. However, older adults who were relatively faster to produce category exemplars in Experiment 2 were more likely to have shown predictive processing patterns in Experiment 1. Taken together, the results link prediction during language comprehension to language production mechanisms and suggest that although older adults can produce speeded language output on demand, they are less likely to automatically recruit these mechanisms during comprehension unless top-down circuitry is particularly strong.