Mechanistic studies investigating the role of visuo-spatial working memory in balance and gait control in ageing, fall risk and Parkinson’s Disease

There is emerging evidence that visuo-spatial processing is involved in balance control during gait. Importantly, visuo-spatial processing may be key for fall avoidance as it enables one to precisely remember the position and physical characteristics of upcoming hazards; an essential skill for the safe navigation of everyday environments. Yet, investigations of visuospatial processing use for obstacle avoidance have been restricted to animal studies and young adults. No studies have been undertaken in older people or people with Parkinson’s Disease for whom visuo-spatial processing deficits are evident and associated with impaired postural control.

This series of studies will investigate visuo-spatial processing required for obstacle avoidance and navigation in older people, older people at high risk of falls and people with Parkinson’s Disease. We will use motion capture to investigate behavioural outcomes and a freely-worn brain imaging device, functional near-infrared spectroscopy to study cortical activation in regions of interest. We will conduct two experiments one involving an obstacle crossing task and another, a stepping task.

We hypothesize that older age, Parkinson’s Disease and increasing task complexity will result in increased risk of tripping and impaired visuo-motor performance, in the obstacle crossing task and in the stepping task, respectively.

This research will greatly improve our understanding of central mechanisms for fall risk and build on our recent behavioural work in this area.