Brain GABA Levels Are Associated with Inhibitory Control Deficits in Older Adults

Lize Hermans, Inge Leunissen, Lisa Pauwels, Koen Cuypers, Ronald Peeters, Nicolaas A J Puts, Richard A E Edden, Stephan P Swinnen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Healthy aging is accompanied by motor inhibition deficits that involve a slower process of stopping a prepotent motor response (i.e., reactive inhibition) rather than a diminished ability to anticipate stopping (i.e., proactive inhibition). Some studies suggest that efficient motor inhibition is related to GABAergic function. Since age-related alterations in the GABA system have also been reported, motor inhibition impairments might be linked to GABAergic alterations in the cortico-subcortical network that mediates motor inhibition. Thirty young human adults (mean age, 23.2 years; age range, 18-34 years; 14 men) and 29 older human adults (mean age, 67.5 years; age range, 60-74 years; 13 men) performed a stop-signal task with varying levels of stop-signal probability. GABA+ levels were measured with magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) in right inferior frontal cortex, pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA), left sensorimotor cortex, bilateral striatum, and occipital cortex. We found that reactive inhibition was worse in older adults compared with young adults, as indicated by longer stop-signal reaction times (SSRTs). No group differences in proactive inhibition were observed as both groups slowed down their response to a similar degree with increasing stop-signal probability. The MRS results showed that tissue-corrected GABA+ levels were on average lower in older as compared with young adults. Moreover, older adults with lower GABA+ levels in the pre-SMA were slower at stopping (i.e., had longer SSRTs). These findings suggest a role for the GABA system in reactive inhibition deficits.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Inhibitory control has been shown to diminish as a consequence of aging. We investigated whether the ability to stop a prepotent motor response and the ability to prepare to stop were related to GABA levels in different regions of the network that was previously identified to mediate inhibitory control. Overall, we found lower GABA levels in older adults compared with young adults. Importantly, those older adults who were slower at stopping had less GABA in the pre-supplementary motor area, a key node of the inhibitory control network. We propose that deficits in the stop process in part depend on the integrity of the GABA system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7844-7851
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number36
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sept 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • GABA
  • healthy aging
  • magnetic resonance spectroscopy
  • proactive inhibition
  • reactive inhibition

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