Campus: Long Beach -- February 12, 2007

Cal State Long Beach Researchers Receive $875,000 NIH Grant to Study Motor Learning, Control Capabilities as Individuals Age

Three researchers from California State University, Long Beach, have been awarded a four-year, $875,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research and testing on motor capabilities with a focus on the elderly.

Titled “Age-dependent Changes in Motor Learning Capabilities,” the study will focus on theory based methods for teaching motor learning and motor control, which predict that learning and retention will be more robust when practice requires higher levels of cognitive processing.

The project will be overseen by principal investigator Michael J. Cohen, a volunteer faculty member in CSULB’s Department of Kinesiology, along with co-investigators Michael G. Lacourse, associate dean of the College of Health and Human Services, and Douglas E. Young, a professor of kinesiology.

Cohen, who was with the Department of Veterans Affairs for 32 years, has been in Long Beach since 1985, serving as the associate chief of staff for research from 1992-2000. He went to Washington, D.C. for two years as the deputy director of the national VA medical research program.

The research will compare learning of a new motor skill (lever aiming task) across four age groups under conditions of blocked (static) or random (dynamic practice) along with conditions of constant or limited knowledge of results. Additionally, these paradigms will be run with an MRI-compatible force transducer during functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain.

Techniques known as high contextual interference and partial knowledge of results will be used on some study participants and compared to others receiving low contextual interference and knowledge of results on every trial. High contextual interference and partial knowledge of results have been shown to initially produce slower learning, but better retention of what is learned with an enhanced ability to use that new learning in other situations.

“These learning methods have been successful in many motor learning situations – laboratory-based, sports-based, rehabilitation-based – and it’s also shown to be successful in other areas such as verbal learning,” said Cohen. “So it’s being used more and more and it appears to be a very effective way to teach motor skills and for rehabilitation compared to giving someone the same moves over and over and followed by immediate feedback after every trial.

“There is some evidence now that people with moderate Alzheimer’s or those who have had strokes with moderate cognitive loss can not use these new teaching methods to regain motor control,” Cohen added. “What we propose is to look at whether or not that would also be an issue if these cognitively rich of methods are used to try and retrain the elderly or train the elderly for new kinds of motor skills as they start losing motor and cognitive function.”

With the increase in the elderly population, the study will look at using these methods in a controlled laboratory situation across the adult life span. Participants will be screened for cognitive status, anxiety, depression, vision, hearing, upper-limb range-of-motion and general health.

The study is recruiting healthy individuals that span the age groups of 21-30, 41-50, 61-70 and 75+ from the Long Beach VA Healthcare System; students and staff of CSULB, including the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute; and residents of Leisure World Seal Beach and Leisure World Laguna Woods.

Three experiments are planned.
“Two experiments will each require a total of about 150 subjects and each participant is seen twice,” said Cohen. “First they go through the learning phase, then 10 minutes later they get a retention - transfer phase, come back in 24-48 hours and are retested for retention and transfer. So, experiments one and two will require somewhere in the vicinity 300 laboratory sessions.” These studies are concerned with different combinations of practice and feedback methods.

The third experiment will assess brain activity during manipulations of practice. For this experiment the investigators will use functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine whether enhanced cognitive activity is required to learn under random practice (high contextual interference) and whether as you get older you can compensate for the lose of both motor control and cognitive function, by recruiting other relevant brains areas.

Contact: Shayne Schroeder, 562/985-1727,
Rick Gloady, 562/985-5454,

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