Background: The differential outcomes procedure (DOP) has proved useful to improve discrimination learning in both animals and humans. Here we adapted DOP to assess its utility to overcome the memory loss commonly associated with normal aging.
Methods: In a delayed matching-to-sample task, subjects were exposed to a man's face, and after a delay, they were required to decide if the previously seen face was within a set of six men's faces. For half the subjects, each sample face was paired with its own outcome (differential outcomes condition); outcomes were randomly arranged for the remaining half of subjects (non-differential condition). Either short (5 second) or long (30 second) delays were interposed between the sample and the comparison stimuli.
Results: Results showed that relative to younger adults, older adults' performance decreased with the longer delay. However, the use of differential outcomes was able to reverse the detrimental effect of the increased delay in the elderly group, raising their performance to the level shown by younger adults.
Conclusions: These findings demonstrate, for the first time, that DOP can help elderly people overcome their memory limitations, and they draw attention to the potential of this procedure as a therapeutic technique.