Hope for more independence in old age

December 1, 2017

Brain stimulation: researcher finds key link for declining manual dexterity in older adults

New Murdoch research using non-invasive brain stimulation offers hope for older Australians to live independently for longer.

Research conducted in the School of Psychology and Exercise Science by PhD student Brittany Rurak, has found a significant association between age-related decline in fine motor control, or ability to use the hands and fingers, and an underlying brain process, namely, inhibition.

“As people get older, their fine motor control declines and it gets harder to perform everyday manual tasks, such as tying shoelaces or buttoning a shirt,” she said.

“Preventing or moderating the decline in age-related changes in fine motor control can improve quality of life, independence, and the ability to contribute to the workplace for older adults.”

To investigate the role of inhibition, Ms Rurak used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which involves placing a small electric coil on the scalp and administering magnetic stimuli to targeted areas of the brain.

“Inhibition is an important brain process for ‘stopping’ unwanted movement, which enables smoother and more controlled hand movements,” Ms Rurak said.

“Inhibition acts within the primary motor cortex, which is the brain region controlling the hand muscles that are important for fine motor control.”

Ms Rurak applied TMS to the primary motor cortex to measure inhibition, as well as asked participants to complete the Purdue pegboard task. This is a test to measure fine motor control that involves placing pegs into small holes on the board as fast as possible.

The older adults (aged 61-86 years) performed significantly worse than the younger adults (aged 18-35 years) on the fine motor control task.

“This drop in fine motor control performance was significantly associated with a reduction in inhibitory processes acting within the primary motor cortex,” Ms Rurak said.

“These findings show that inhibitory processes play an important role in the decline of fine motor control of older adults.

“Applying TMS has helped us measure the role of inhibition in the decline of fine motor control.

“Future research should use TMS to strengthen the inhibitory processes—to better understand the role of inhibition, and whether strengthening inhibition results in better fine motor control performance.”


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