Neuroplasticity and cognitive aging: The scaffolding theory of aging and cognition

A recent proposal called the Scaffolding Theory of Cognitive Aging (STAC) postulates that functional changes with aging are part of a lifespan process of compensatory cognitive scaffolding that is an attempt to alleviate the cognitive declines associated with aging. Indeed, behavioral studies have shown that aging is associated with both decline as well as preservation of selective cognitive abilities. Similarly, neuroimaging studies have revealed selective changes in the aging brain that reflect neural decline as well as compensatory neural recruitment. While aging is associated with reductions in cortical thickness, white-matter integrity, dopaminergic activity, and functional engagement in posterior brain regions such as the hippocampus and occipital areas, there are compensatory increases in frontal functional engagement that correlate with better behavioral performance in older adults. In this review, we discuss these age-related behavioral and brain findings that support the STAC model of cognitive scaffolding and additionally integrate the findings on neuroplasticity as a compensatory response in the aging brain. As such, we also examine the impact of external experiences in facilitating neuroplasticity in older adults. Finally, having laid the foundation for STAC, we briefly describe a proposed intervention trial (The Synapse Program) designed to evaluate the behavioral and neural impact of engagement in lifestyle activities that facilitates successful cognitive scaffolding using a controlled experiment where older adult participants are randomly assigned to different conditions of engagement.