Increased surround modulation of perceived contrast in the elderly.
The appearance of a stimulus depends on its background, with high-contrast backgrounds resulting in lower perceived contrast. Increased perceptual surround suppression effects have been reported in the elderly. Our experiments tested whether enhanced surround suppression in the elderly arises because of age-dependent differences in brightness induction mechanisms that are sensitive to phase information at the border of the central stimulus. Fifteen younger (18 to 33 years) and 18 older (61 to 84 years) adults participated. Using a method of constant stimuli, perceived contrast was measured for a sine wave grating with and without an annular surround. Annuli were either in-phase with the central grating (suppresses the perceived central contrast) or out-of-phase (typically enhances perceived central contrast). The experiment was repeated using stimuli where the contrast was reduced for younger observers to approximately match the effective contrast available to older adults. With the surround present, the older group matched the contrast of the central target to an average lower contrast than younger adults [F(1,31) = 17.4, p < 0.001]. The magnitude of contrast suppression differences between older and younger observers was invariant of annulus grating phase [F(1,31) = 0.036, p = 0.85] and was of similar magnitude when the stimuli were approximately matched between groups for differences in contrast detection [F(1,31) = 0.06, p = 0.81]. Normal ageing increases perceived contrast surround suppression, irrespective of information at the stimulus border between center and surround. Conditions that result in perceived contrast enhancement on average in younger adults result in contrast suppression in the elderly. Our findings suggest that age-related differences are likely in the appearance of objects in natural environments where background contrast varies.