Contrast sensitivity as a function of target luminance for four spatial frequencies (0.5, 2, 4, and 8 cycles/deg) was measured in younger (n = 12; age range, 19–35 years) and older (n = 11; age range, 68–79 years) adults in order to examine the feasibility of optical and neural explanations for the impairment of contrast sensitivity in older adults. All subjects were free from identifiable ocular disease and had good acuity. Sensitivity for each spatial frequency was measured at eight luminance levels spanning 3.5 log units in the photopic–mesopic range. When gratings were flickered at 0.5 Hz, functions for older adults were displaced downward on the sensitivity axis across all luminance levels, and the slopes of these functions were steeper than those for younger adults, suggesting that optical mechanisms alone cannot account for the vision loss in older adults. Further measurements, in which spatial targets were flickered at 7.5 Hz, indicated that this faster temporal modulation affected sensitivity as a function of luminance differentially in younger and older adults. These data imply that the neural mechanisms subserving human spatial vision undergo significant changes during adulthood.
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