Age-related cognitive and behavioral slowing may be caused by changes in the speed of neural signaling or by changes in the number of signaling steps necessary to achieve a given function. In the mammalian cortex, neural communication is organized by a 30-100 Hz "gamma" oscillation. There is a putative link between the gamma frequency and the speed of processing in a neural network: the dynamics of pyramidal neuron membrane time constants suggest that synaptic integration is framed by the gamma cycle, and pharmacological slowing of gamma also slows reaction times on behavioral tasks. The present experiments identify reductions in a robust 40-70 Hz gamma oscillation in the aged rat medial frontal cortex. The reductions were observed in the form of local field potentials, later peaks in fast-spiking neuron autocorrelations, and delays in the spiking of inhibitory neurons following local excitatory signals. Gamma frequency did not vary with movement speed, but rats with slower gamma also moved more slowly. Gamma frequency age differences were not observed in hippocampus. Hippocampal CA1 fast-spiking neurons exhibited interspike intervals consistent with a fast (70-100 Hz) gamma frequency, a pattern maintained across theta phases and theta frequencies independent of fluctuations in the average firing rates of the neurons. We propose that an average lengthening of the cortical 15-25 ms gamma cycle is one factor contributing to age-related slowing and that future attempts to offset cognitive declines will find a target in the response of fast-spiking inhibitory neurons to excitatory inputs.
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