To aid our understanding of age-related changes in brain activation during visuoperceptual processing, we designed an experiment to test the effect of task difficulty on regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) as measured by positron emission tomography (PET). We report here the results from 10 young subjects engaged in match-to-sample tasks of progressively degraded faces. The tasks consisted of a control task, a face matching task with no stimulus degradation, and five levels of degradation: 20%, 40%, 50%, 60%, and 70%. Both performance accuracy and reaction times deteriorated significantly with increasing face degradation. There was a significant increase of rCBF in bilateral fusiform gyri during all face-matching conditions compared to the control task, and bilateral prefrontal activation during the 70% degradation condition. Linear regression analyses revealed a significant increase of rCBF in the right prefrontal cortex, and linear decreases of rCBF in the striate and fusiform cortex as face degradation increased. Performance on the 70% task was correlated positively with rCBF in right prefrontal and bilateral fusiform gyri, and negatively with left prefrontal and striate rCBF. These results show that the right prefrontal, striate, and ventral extrastriate cortex are the principal brain regions that modulate their activity as this visual discrimination task becomes more difficult. The right prefrontal increase probably represents an increasing demand on working memory or attention, whereas decreased rCBF in the striate cortex may be due to changes in the characteristics of the stimuli, or to suppression of low-level processing by one of a number of mechanisms. This experiment has implications both for the design of neuroimaging experiments, and for interpreting differences in rCBF activation between groups.
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