There is evidence that aged normal subjects have more difficulty in achieving automaticity than young subjects. The underlying central neural mechanism for this phenomenon is unclear. In the present study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to investigate the effect of normal ageing on automaticity. Aged healthy subjects were asked to practice self-initiated, self-paced, memorized sequential finger movements with different complexity until they could perform the tasks automatically. Automaticity was evaluated by having subjects perform a secondary task simultaneously with the sequential movements. Although it took more time, most aged subjects eventually performed the tasks automatically at the same level as the young subjects. Functional MRI results showed that, for both groups, sequential movements activated similar brain regions before and after automaticity was achieved. No additional activity was observed in the automatic condition. While performing automatic movements, aged subjects had greater activity in the bilateral anterior lobe of cerebellum, premotor area, parietal cortex, left prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, caudate nucleus and thalamus, and recruited more areas, including the pre-supplementary motor area and the bilateral posterior lobe of cerebellum, compared to young subjects. These results indicate that most healthy aged subjects can perform some complex motor tasks automatically. However, aged subjects appear to require more brain activity to perform automatically at the same level as young subjects. This appears to be the main reason why aged subjects have more difficulty in achieving automaticity
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