Study: Older brains less nimble at multi-tasking

Mon Apr 11, 2011 9:53pm EDT
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By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The elderly have a harder time multi-tasking than young adults because older people are far less nimble at switching neurological connections in their brains between activities, according to research released on Monday.

The findings of neuroscientists from the University of California at San Francisco add new insights to a growing body of studies showing that one's ability to move from one task to another in quick succession becomes more difficult with age.

Previous studies and anecdotal accounts of "senior moments" -- fleeting bouts of forgetfulness, especially in the midst of competing demands on attention -- have established a strong link between juggling tasks and glitches in short-term, or "working," memory, for people of all ages.

Scientists define working memory as the capacity to hold and manipulate information in one's mind for brief intervals, a function vital to all mental operations, from following a conversation to more complex tasks like learning or reasoning.

Ample evidence already exists to demonstrate that the negative impact of multi-tasking on working memory is greater for older individuals than for the young, said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, senior author of the UCSF study.

His research sheds new light on why this so by measuring brain activity during controlled multi-tasking experiments, comparing the performance of men and women whose average age was 24 with a second group who averaged 69 years of age.

The study was published in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Neural circuitry and networks were monitored through magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scans as test subjects were asked to contemplate outdoor photos they were briefly shown, then were presented with the picture of a face and asked to determine its gender and age, before being asked to recall details from the original scene they viewed.   Continued...

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