Recent studies have reported inconsistent results regarding the loss of reward sensitivity in the aging brain. Although such an age effect might be due to a decline of physiological processes, it may also be a consequence of age-related changes in motivational preference for different rewards. Here, we examined whether the age effects on neural correlates of reward anticipation are modulated by the type of expected reward. Functional magnetic resonance images were acquired in 24 older (60-78 years) and 24 young participants (20-28 years) while they performed an incentive delay task offering monetary or social rewards. Anticipation of either reward type recruited brain structures associated with reward, including the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). Region of interest analysis revealed an interaction effect of reward type and age group in the right NAcc: enhanced activation to cues of social reward was detected in the older subsample while enhanced activation to cues of monetary reward was detected in the younger subsample. Our results suggest that neural sensitivity to reward-predicting cues does not generally decrease with age. Rather, neural responses in the NAcc appear to be modulated by the type of reward, presumably reflecting age-related changes in motivational value attributed to different types of reward.
Differential patterns of nucleus accumbens activation during anticipation of monetary and social reward in young and older adults. Rademacher L, Salama A, Gründer G, Spreckelmeyer KN. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014 Jun;9(6):825-31. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst047. Epub 2013 Apr 1.