Van Boxtel, W.S. and Lawyer, L.A. (2022). Syntactic Comprehension Priming and Lexical Boost Effects in Older Adults. Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience. DOI:

The extent to which syntactic priming in comprehension is affected by ageing has not yet been extensively explored. It is further unclear whether syntactic comprehension priming persists across fillers in older adults. This study used a self-paced reading task and controlled for syntactic and lexical overlap, to (1) discover whether syntactic comprehension priming exists in older adults, across fillers, (2) to uncover potential differences between older and younger adults on priming measures, and (3) identify whether Working Memory or Processing Speed affect priming in older adults. Both older (n = 30, Mage = 68.6, SD = 3.68) and Younger adults (n = 30, Mage = 21.6, SD = 2.44) showed effects of syntactic priming and lexical boost. This suggests syntactic processing does not decline with age, and that abstract priming and the lexical boost are not dependent on residual activation or explicit retention in memory.

Van Boxtel, W.S. and Lawyer, L.A. (2021). Sentence Comprehension in Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. Language and Linguistics Compass, 15(6). DOI: 10.1111/lnc3.12430

The ability to correctly interpret complex syntax and long sentences is gradually impaired as people age. Typical aging is characterised by Working Memory deficits, which are thought to play an important role in determining whether syntax can be comprehended correctly, and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease are thought to exacerbate these limitations. Furthermore, declines in processing speed appear to cause increasing difficulty in the proper allocation of cognitive resources necessary for sentence processing. Typically-aging adults may compensate for these deficits successfully when interpreting sentences using semantics or intact cognitive functions, but Alzheimer’s Disease patients may exhibit deficits too severe for this to occur. The causes of syntax comprehension deficits in Alzheimer’s are still contested, and may consist of language-specific impairments or deficits in general cognition impacting linguistic behaviour. In this review, we aim to give an overview of the main markers of cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s Disease in the domain of sentence comprehension, as well as discuss potential underlying factors that may affect sentence comprehension in older speakers and Alzheimer’s patients.

Van Boxtel, W.S. and Lawyer, L.A. (in preparation). A Matter of Memory? Age-Invariant Relative Clause Disambiguation And Memory Interference in Older Adults. Special Issue on Language in Healthy Aging, Topics in Cognitive Science.

Background. Older adults’ relative clause disambiguation preferences have been understudied in recent research. Past studies suggest Working Memory restrictions play a role in determining attachment bias, and preferences may further depend on reliance on processing speed and explicit memory demands in linguistic tasks. It is further unclear whether semantic memory interference affects older adults disproportionately, and whether attachment biases are affected by similarity-based memory interference. The current study aimed to investigate older adults’ attachment biases and determine what role processing speed plays on relative clause attachment in older and younger adults.

Method. We used an implicit self-paced reading paradigm and collected measures of Working Memory and processing speed. Older (n = 30) and Younger (n = 35) took part in the study online and were presented with biased relative clause sentences as well as semantic interference load conditions. Reading times were recorded and measures of comprehension accuracy were monitored for attention. This setup allowed for the implicit measurement of attachment biases and memory interference effects.

Results. Results show robust preferences for recency attachment in both age groups. Attachment preferences did not differ by group and were unaffected by Working Memory span and processing speed. Similarity-based interference affected both groups equally, but was more pronounced in dispreferred NP1-biased structures. Interference effects were
further unaffected by pre-test scores.

Conclusions. Our results contradict sentence processing accounts based on individual differences in Working Memory as well as the processing speed theory of cognition. Findings of greater interference in dispreferred structures support unified processing models where parsing constraints naturally interact. The lack of age differences on our measures
further aligns with research finding age-invariant implicit language processing.

Van Boxtel, W.S. and Lawyer, L.A. (in preparation). In the prime of life: Electrophysiological evidence for syntactic comprehension priming in older adults. Brain and Language.