Cuevas, P., He, Y., Billino, J., Kozasa E. & Straube, B. (accepted). Age-related effects on the neural processing of semantic complexity in a continuous narrative: Modulation by gestures already present in young to middle-aged adults. Neuropsychologia (**)
The processing of semantically complex speech is a demanding task which can be facilitated by speech-associated arm and hand gestures. However, the role of age concerning the perception of semantic complexity and the influence of gestures in this context remains unclear. The goal of this study was to investigate if age-related differences are already present in early adulthood during the processing of semantic complexity and gestures. To this end, we analyzed fMRI images of a sample of 38 young and middle-aged participants (age-range: 19-55). They had the task to listen and to watch a narrative. The narrative contained segments varying in the degree of semantic complexity, and they were spontaneously accompanied by gestures. The semantic complexity of the story was measured by the idea density. Consistent with previous findings in young adults, we observed increased activation for passages with lower compared to higher complexity in bilateral temporal areas and the precuneus. BOLD signal in the left frontal and left parietal regions correlated during the perception of complex passages with increasing age. This correlation was reduced for passages presented with gestures. Median-split based post-hoc comparisons confirmed that group differences between younger (19-23 years) and older adults within the early adult lifespan (24-55 years) were significantly reduced in passages with gestures. Our results suggest that older adults within the early adulthood adapt to the requirements of highly complex passages activating additional regions when no gesture information is available. Gestures might play a facilitative role with increasing age, especially when speech is complex.
Keywords: co-speech gestures, semantic complexity, aging brain, idea density, discourse perception, compensation.