Ben-Gurion University Researchers Suggest Older Adults and Babies Use Same Strategy to Improve Movement Accuracy

A grasping mechanism that has been attributed primarily to early development in babies and toddlers may be at work in old age as well, according to new research from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In early development, babies make what might seem like random exaggerated movements in all directions, until they learn to purposefully reach for objects. Their movement is very variable, until they find a good solution for the problem at hand (e.g., reaching for that Cheerios bit, and putting it in their mouth). The mechanism is called exploration-exploitation. They explore the range of possibilities, and when they find a good movement plan, they exploit it.

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In an article published yesterday in Scientific Reports (part of the Nature group),Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek (pictured above), Head of the Cognition, Aging and Rehabilitation (CAR) Lab in the Dept. of Physical Therapy, Faculty of Health SciencesABC Robotics and The Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience at BGU, and her team have shown that this same exploration-exploitation mechanism is at work in older adults as well.  

In their experiment, the older adults were making movements in an effort to stay on target, but were not very successful. 

“Their movements were too slow and too small. We then induced them to make movements that were larger and faster, and their performance on the original task improved significantly,” says Levy-Tzedek.   

While they have not tested this new mechanism in a physical therapy context yet, it holds promise, she believes. “We haven't tested it directly, but perhaps getting older adults to make exaggerated movements can help fine-tune their performance on specific tasks that they find difficult to perform otherwise,” she says. 

The researchers were surprised to discover that making “mistakes” actually helped improve future task performance. They were also surprised to discover that once a better movement pattern was established, the variability dropped, thus leading them to conclude that the variability played a role in finding the more successful movement plan. 

The study was funded by the Brandeis Leir & Bronfman Foundations; the Promobilia FoundationThe Israeli Science Foundation; and by the Helmsley Charitable Trust through the Agricultural, Biological and Cognitive Robotics Centre of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. 

“Motor Errors Lead to Enhanced Performance in Older Adults”
Levy-Tzedek, S.