Age-related Changes in Lateral Entorhinal and CA3 Neuron Allocation Predict Poor Performance on Object Discrimination
Emerging evidence suggests that aging is associated with a reduced ability to distinguish perceptually similar stimuli in one's environment. As the ability to accurately perceive and encode sensory information is foundational for explicit memory, understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of discrimination impairments that emerge with advancing age could help elucidate the mechanisms of mnemonic decline. To this end, there is a need for preclinical approaches that robustly and reliably model age-associated perceptual discrimination deficits. Taking advantage of rodents' exceptional olfactory abilities, the present study applied rigorous psychophysical techniques to the evaluation of discrimination learning in young and aged F344 rats. Aging did not influence odor detection thresholds or the ability to discriminate between perceptually distinct odorants. In contrast, aged rats were disproportionately impaired relative to young on problems that required discriminations between perceptually similar olfactory stimuli. Importantly, these disproportionate impairments in discrimination learning did not simply reflect a global learning impairment in aged rats, as they performed other types of difficult discriminations on par with young rats. Among aged rats, discrimination deficits were strongly associated with spatial learning deficits. These findings reveal a new, sensitive behavioral approach for elucidating the neural mechanisms of cognitive decline associated with normal aging.