Perception of self and others in healthy ageing
Processing information related to the self and inferring the mental state of another person is known to involve the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) in both younger and older adults (Stone et al., 2008; Kelley et al., 2002; Hynes et al., 2006; Ruby et al., 2009). According to the dorsolateral prefrontal (DLPF) theory of cognitive ageing, processing of the self should not be affected by healthy adult ageing as functions related to the VMPFC remain relatively preserved compared to functions related to the DLPF cortex (MacPherson et al., 2002). Similarly, no age difference should emerge in those tasks thought to tap functions of the VMPFC. The aim of this PhD is to investigate the effect of healthy adult ageing on the ability to process information related to the self and others. A series of experiments was designed to compare the performance of younger and older adults on tasks that investigate processing and retrieval of self-related information (e.g. behaviour prediction, personality judgement, mental state inferences, self-referential). The tasks differ in the extent to which they rely on cognitive effort. The results show that ageing does not affect self-related judgements. A further series of experiments designed to investigate affective and cognitive Theory of Mind (ToM) show that the affective performance, thought to rely on VMPFC activity, is not affected by age. In contrast, the performance of older participants differs from that of younger adults on cognitive ToM task, thought to involve DLPFC brain areas. A final experiment investigated the ability to make self versus other related judgments in a confabulating patient. The results show that the ability to reflect on the self but not on others was intact. In summary, the findings demonstrate that processing self-information and making ToM inferences remains intact in older individuals and is not overtly impaired by confabulation.