Executive functions, a set of cognitive processes that enable flexible behavioral control, are known to decay with aging. Because such complex mental functions are considered to rely on the dynamic coordination of functionally different neural systems, the age-related decline in executive functions should be underpinned by alteration of large-scale neural dynamics. However, the effects of age on brain dynamics have not been firmly formulated. Here, we investigate such age-related changes in brain dynamics by applying “energy landscape analysis” to publicly available functional magnetic resonance imaging data from healthy younger and older human adults. We quantified the ease of dynamical transitions between different major patterns of brain activity, and estimated it for the default mode network (DMN) and the cingulo-opercular network (CON) separately. We found that the two age groups shared qualitatively the same trajectories of brain dynamics in both the DMN and CON. However, in both of networks, the ease of transitions was significantly smaller in the older than the younger group. Moreover, the ease of transitions was associated with the performance in executive function tasks in a doubly dissociated manner: for the younger adults, the ability of executive functions was mainly correlated with the ease of transitions in the CON, whereas that for the older adults was specifically associated with the ease of transitions in the DMN. These results provide direct biological evidence for age-related changes in macroscopic brain dynamics and suggest that such neural dynamics play key roles when individuals carry out cognitively demanding tasks.
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