Cognitive Competence Compensates for Age-related Working Memory Deficits

mathias-sager-adult learning memory brain hippocampus

Summary. The transverse patterning (TP) task is a cognitive problem resembling the childhood game of “rock-paper-scissors” requiring decision-making in the process of learning associations between paired stimuli. The TP problem served the assessment of configural learning deficits due to hippocampal damages in animals. In experiments with humans, training has proven to increase test subjects’ TP task performance. This supports the interpretation that even older adults may be able to learn to adapt their cognitive strategies to compensate for age-related working memory deterioration. Furthermore, older adults may disproportionately benefit from visual versions of TP task, which involve semantic knowledge. This was found to support older individuals in the application of cognitive strategies that are activating less age-sensitive working memory and brain areas.

You an try the TP learning memory experiment yourself at

Adult Learning and Working Memory

Cognitive aging has become an increased research focus in the light of aging societies [1]. One concept of working memory suggests a kind of mental clipboard in which information can be temporarily cached and manipulated [2]. Processing speed was found to be one factor of short-term memory performance development throughout the lifespan, but other aspects might be even more relevant [1]. Executive attention is necessary for visual working memory tasks [3]. Elderly study subjects did increasingly lack the ability to disregard irrelevant data which negatively affected the coordinated management of working memory [1]. A further potential memory deficiency that is linked to the aging process relates to the pattern separation mechanism that is responsible for the accurate discrimination of similar patterns, which some researchers suspect to indicating early signs of age-related cognitive impairments and even possible Alzheimer’s disease [4].

The Transverse Patterning (TP) Task

Spence (1952) ([5] theorized that there are two different difficulties of patterned discrimination, one that presents a discrimination problem simultaneously (i.e., during one test trial), and one that requires a successive configuration of different stimuli (i.e., across different test trials). Lawrence (1949) [6] designed the transverse patterning (TP) experiment that allows the demonstration of the particularity of these different learning situations as a within-subject test.  The TP task is a cognitive problem resembling the childhood game of “rock-paper-scissors” requiring decision-making in the process of learning associations between paired stimuli [4]. The task consists of a series of learning phases during which different stimuli are learned as follows: If A and B appear, A is rewarded. When B and C are presented, B is correct. In the case of A and C, contrary to the more logical inference of A winning over C, C is favored over A. This third phase requires a nonlinear learning that needs to be configured with relative difficulty [7].

In the beginning, the TP problem served the assessment of configural learning deficits due to hippocampal damages in animals. The TP task was considered likely to provide an alternative measure to neurological diagnoses of psychological disorders such as Schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [8]. The configural association theory’s successor was the conjunctive learning theory, which stated that despite a defective hippocampus, the necessary conjunctions of information to solve the TP task could be built in the cortex through training [9]. Today there is evidence that transverse patterning is not reliant on the hippocampus, whereas other types of configural learning, such as structural learning, are. People with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) don’t experience difficulties with biconditional discrimination problems like (some versions of) TP, but with similar tasks additionally involving the binding of cues in spatial contexts that do rely on the hippocampus [10]. This is confirming the already earlier presumption that only for spatial working memory the hippocampus is required [11].

TP performance in Normal (Older) Adults

It has to be differentiated between verbal TP that deploys more the left hippocampal brain area and the right hippocampus, which enables visuospatial memory [12]. Studies revealed that with increasing age the development of lateral hippocampal maturation is related to increased TP performance. More specifically, right-sidedness in neural activity was supportive for TP performance, and children’s TP performance developed according to the development towards adult-like right-lateralization of hippocampal functioning [13].

The TP task may be not only a general neural process in the hippocampus. If it were, its sensitivity to aging [14] would elderly cause to perform worse on the task than younger individuals. Indeed, in the aging of healthy adults, “hippocampal neural activity does not decrease with age but is rather related to cognitive competence” [15]. Provided a TP task displays meaningful stimuli, it is possible for individuals suffering from memory weakness to use semantic knowledge [16]. A further example of a cognitive strategy is unitization, which poses that cue pairs are seen as compounds [11]. Both individuals suffering from amnesia and healthy older adults subject to age-related deficits can use unitization as a cognitive compensation strategy [9]. That some models are explaining working memory as an “activated subset of long-term memory” [17] rather than a separated capacity, would speak for the ability of elderly to make use of their long-term experience when activating resources for short-term use.


[1] Peng, H., Wen, J., Wang, D., & Gao, Y. (2012). The Impact of Processing Speed Training on Working Memory in Old Adults. Journal Of Adult Development, 19(3), 150-157. doi:10.1007/s10804-012-9142-6

[2] Farquharson, K., Hogan, T. P., & Bernthal, J. E. (2017). Working memory in school-age children with and without a persistent speech sound disorder. International Journal Of Speech-Language Pathology, 1-12. doi:10.1080/17549507.2017.1293159

[3] Gray, S., Green, S., Alt, M., Hogan, T. P., Kuo, T., Brinkley, S., & Cowan, N. (2017). The Structure of Working Memory in Young Children and Its Relation to Intelligence. Journal Of Memory And Language, 92183-201.

[4] Gracian, E. I., Osmon, D. C., & Mosack, K. E. (2016). Transverse patterning, aging, and neuropsychological correlates in humans. Hippocampus, doi:10.1002/hipo.22662

[5] Spence, K. W. (1952). The nature of the response in discrimination learning. Psychological Review, 59, 89-93.

[6] Lawrence, D. H. (1949). Acquired distinctiveness of cues: I. Transfer between discriminations on the basis of familiarity with the stimulus. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 39(6), 770-784.

[7] Nejime, M., Inoue, M., Saruwatari, M., Mikami, A., Nakamura, K., & Miyachi, S. (2015). Research report: Responses of monkey prefrontal neurons during the execution of transverse patterning. Behavioural Brain Research, 278293-302. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2014.10.015

[8] Carlozzi, N. E., & Thomas, D. G. (2008). The Utility of the Transverse Patterning Task as a Measure of Configural Learning in a College Sample. Applied Neuropsychology, 15(1), 54-60. doi:10.1080/09084280801917590

[9] D’Angelo, M. C., Kacollja, A., Rabin, J. S., Rosenbaum, R. S., & Ryan, J. D. (2015). Unitization supports lasting performance and generalization on a relational memory task: Evidence from a previously undocumented developmental amnesic case. Neuropsychologia, 77185-200. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.07.025

[10] Ring, M., Derwent, C. T., Gaigg, S. B., & Bowler, D. M. (2017). Structural learning difficulties implicate altered hippocampal functioning in adults with autism spectrum disorder. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 126(6), 793-804. doi:10.1037/abn0000277

[11] Dusek, J. A., & Eichenbaum, H. (1998). The hippocampus and transverse patterning guided by olfactory cues. Behavioral Neuroscience, 112, 762-771.

[12] Hanlon, F. M., Houck, J. M., Pyeatt, C. J., Lundy, S. L., Euler, M. J., Weisend, M. P., & … Tesche, C. D. (2011). Bilateral hippocampal dysfunction in schizophrenia. Neuroimage, 581158-1168. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.06.091

[13] Hopf, L., Quraan, M. A., Cheung, M. J., Taylor, M. J., Ryan, J. D., & Moses, S. N. (2013). Hippocampal lateralization and memory in children and adults. Journal Of The International Neuropsychological Society, 19(10), 1042-1052. doi:10.1017/S1355617713000751

[14] Elbert, T., Kolassa, S., Leirer, V. M., Wienbruch, C., Paul-Jordanov, I., Elbert, T., & Kolassa, I. T. (2010). Hippocampal activity during the transverse patterning task declines with cognitive competence but not with age. Bmc Neuroscience, 11

[15] Leirer, V. M., Wienbruch, C., Paul-Jordanov, I., Kolassa, S., Elbert, T., & Kolassa, I. T. (2010). Hippocampal activity during the transverse patterning task declines with cognitive competence but not with age. BMC Neuroscience, 11113. doi:10.1186/1471-2202-11-113

[16] Moses, S. N., Ryan, J. D., Bardouille, T., Kovacevic, N., Hanlon, F. M., & McIntosh, A. R. (2009). Semantic information alters neural activation during transverse patterning performance. Neuroimage, 46863-873. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.02.042

[17] López-Frutos, J. M., Poch, C., García-Morales, I., Ruiz-Vargas, J. M., & Campo, P. (2014). Working memory retrieval differences between medial temporal lobe epilepsy patients and controls: A three memory layer approach. Brain And Cognition, 84(1), 90-96. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2013.11.004

  • I see reflections of my own style of “research-before-you-write.” I prefer this to the opinion-laden faux “news” You are way too rational for the modern crowd. Can’t you, like, make some stuff up or something? 😉

    • Great feedback, thanks! For the moment a scientific basis is important to me. It will come the time when I adapt to a style speaking to the crowd, still on a fact basis though where required. In the meanwhile, I make a lot of things up in my paintings (one can’t say they are realistic:-)). What’s your strategy going forward? All the best

  • “Provided a TP task displays meaningful stimuli, it is possible for individuals suffering from memory weakness to use semantic knowledge.”
    Very interesting…another topic to add to my list to explore…sigh. Haha

    • Hi, Patty. Happy that I can I provide input on your list, which is a good thing. Indeed, but don’t let you stress you by such a list (because of your “sigh”), it will pop up when you need it again by itself.

      • Haha true. But this impatient woman prefers to know all now 😉 Yes, ridiculous, but well….it’s the mimosa pudica in me.