A Cross-species Model of Dual-Task Walking in Young and Older Humans and Rats


Introduction: Dual-task walking is common in daily life but becomes more difficult with aging. Little is known about the neurobiological mechanisms affecting competing cognitive demands. Translational studies with human and animal models are needed to address this gap. This pilot study investigated the feasibility of implementing a novel cross-species dual-task model in humans and rats and aimed to establish preliminary evidence that the model induces a dual-task cost. Methods: Young and older humans and rats performed an object discrimination task (OD), a baseline task of typical walking (baseline), an alternation turning task on a Figure 8 walking course (Alt), and a dual-task combining object discrimination with the alternation task (AltOD). Primary behavioral assessments including walking speed and correct selections for object discrimination and turning direction. In humans, left prefrontal cortex activity was measured with functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). Results: Human subjects generally performed well on all tasks, but the older adults exhibited a trend for a slowing of walking speed immediately before the turning decision for Alt and AltOD compared to baseline. Older adults also had heightened prefrontal activity relative to young adults for the Alt and AltOD tasks. Older rodents required more training than young rodents to learn the alternation task. When tested on AltOD with and without a 15-s delay between trials, older rodents exhibited a substantial performance deficit for the delayed version on the initial day of testing. Old rats, however, did not show a significant slowing in walking speed with increasing task demand, as was evident in the young rats. Discussion: This study demonstrates the feasibility and challenges associated with implementing a cross-species dual-task model. While there was preliminary evidence of dual-task cost in both humans and rats, the magnitude of effects was small and not consistent across species. This is likely due to the relative ease of each task in humans and the walking component in rats not being sufficiently challenging. Future versions of this test should make the cognitive tasks more challenging and the motor task in rats more complex.

Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience