Older adults experience difficulties in daily situations that require flexible information selection in the presence of multiple competing sensory inputs, like for instance multi-talker situations. Modulations of rhythmic neural activity in the alpha–beta (8–30 Hz) frequency range in posterior brain areas have been established as a cross-modal neural correlate of selective attention. However, research linking compromised auditory selective attention to changes in rhythmic neural activity in aging is sparse.
We tested younger (n = 25; 22–35 years) and older adults (n = 26; 63–76 years) in an attention modulated dichotic listening task. In this, two streams of highly similar auditory input were simultaneously presented to participants’ both ears (i.e., dichotically) while attention had to be focused on the input to only one ear (i.e. target) and the other, distracting information had to be ignored.
We here demonstrate a link between severely compromised auditory selective attention in aging and a partial reorganization of attention-related rhythmic neural responses. In particular, in old age we observed a shift from a self-initiated, preparatory modulation of lateralized alpha rhythmic activity to an externally driven response in the alpha–beta range. Critically, moment-to-moment fluctuations in the age-specific patterns of self-initiated and externally driven lateralized rhythmic activity were associated with behavioral performance. We conclude that adult age differences in spatial selective attention likely derive from a functional reorganization of rhythmic neural activity within the aging brain.