Reduced motor cortex inhibition and a ‘cognitive-first' prioritisation strategy for older adults during dual-tasking


It is well established that older adults are less able to perform attentionally demanding motor tasks, placing them at greater risk of accident-related injury. The primary purpose of this study was to investigate whether the interplay between prefrontal and motor cortex activity could predict such age-related performance deficits. Using a dual-task (DT) paradigm, 15 younger and 15 older adults participated in experiment 1, where brain activity was simultaneously measured using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Experiment 1 demonstrated poorer performance for the older group across a range of DTs combining visuomotor arm tracking with a secondary cognitive or motor task. Interestingly however, older adults' DT performance error was isolated to the motor component of DTs. TMS data revealed reduced motor cortex (M1) inhibition during DTs for older adults, and a trend for this correlating with poorer performance. In contrast, poorer performing younger adults showed significantly higher M1 inhibition. Experiment 2 was conducted given a high amount of movement artifact in experiment 1 fNIRS data. Using fNIRS to measure prefrontal, premotor, and motor cortex activity in an additional 15 older adults, we found no evidence of an interplay between these regions predicting DT performance. Nevertheless, performance data replicated experiment 1 in showing that DT error was isolated to motor tasks in older adults, with no significant cognitive task error. Overall, this study shows that older adults seemed to adopt a ‘cognitive-first' prioritisation strategy during the DTs involved in our study, and that deficits in DT performance may be related to the modulation of M1 inhibitory mechanisms. We propose that clinicians advise older adults to allocate greater attention to motor tasks during activities where they may be at risk of accident-related injury.

Experimental Gerontology