Healthy seniors wanted for multi-tasking study

Doing two things at once is the focus of a Perth study which is looking at how mood or memory related conditions affect the ability to multitask.

UWA researcher Professor Romola Bucks is leading a study that aims to confirm losing the ability to mullti-task is not a result of healthy ageing 

By Natasha Egan

Healthy West Australian seniors are needed for a study looking at a possible link between losing the ability to multi-task and Alzheimer’s disease.

The University of Western Australia (UWA) research project will study approximately 90 people aged over 60 doing two things at once. 

A third of people in the study will have Alzheimer’s, another third will be diagnosed with major depression and the remaining third, which researchers are now calling for, will comprise a control group of seniors who are ageing healthily.

The project aims to confirm that losing the ability to multi-task doesn’t occur in healthy ageing or with major depression, said the lead investigator, Professor Romola Bucks from UWA’s School of Psychology.

“It’s about finding a cognitive symptom that is particular and specific for Alzheimer’s disease,” Prof Bucks said. 

Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that attacks the brain, which in turn affects memory, thinking and behaviour. 

It is found in about 50 to 70 per cent of dementia cases making it the most common form of dementia, according to Alzheimer’s Australia, as outlined on their website. 

Answering the phone while cooking dinner, then trying to talk on the phone at the same time as stirring the pot or watching the grill is a typical example of doing two things at once, Prof Bucks said.

The UWA study will test the functions in a much more controlled way via a series of assessments.

The team has developed a computer task where volunteers respond physically to pictures on a computer by pressing a yes/no button at the same as listening to and repeating numbers, which requires a verbal response, Prof Bucks said.

The inclusion of people with depression is necessary because major depression and Alzheimer’s disease have similar effects on memory and thinking skills, Prof Bucks said.

“In the early stages they are very easily confused,” she said.

Trying to diagnose Alzheimer’s is quite difficult, Prof Bucks said. And there are three questions that need to be answered – Is this normal ageing, or something more, or is this depression, she said.

“It’s critical to find a symptom they differ on and this study hopes to show they differ on the ability to do two things at once.”

There has been research done in this area before and Prof Bucks has been studying it for more than 10 years. 

But there are still unanswered questions as to whether losing the ability to multi-skill is linked specifically to Alzheimer’s disease, she said.

“From a scientific point of view, we’ve got nail it.”

The complete project involves researchers investigating mental control ability over a lifespan which it does by including children and people aged 18 to 40.

Researchers will look at how children develop skills, the age they develop multi-skilling abilities and reasons behind losing them as we age. 

This study is funded by the Australian Research Council and is part of a larger three-year funded project, which has more than two years to go.

Prof Bucks specialises in research on how ageing affects the mental processes. 

Current projects include how memory and thinking skills change and how people respond to those changes.

She is also looking at how poor sleep might impact on mood and thinking as well as what makes people vulnerable to developing anxiety as they age.

Researchers will be recruiting older adults over the next month for the multi-tasking study but Prof Bucks said all healthy seniors interested in volunteering are encouraged to call as their names can be put on the list for future studies. 

Volunteers will need to go to UWA in Crawley to take part in the study. Parking can be arranged and the assessments are expected to take two to two-and-a-half hours. 

Men and women aged over 60 and healthy who are interested in volunteering for this or future studies can telephone UWA graduate research assistant Talitha Lowndes on 08 6488 7342 or 0450 441 841, or email Professor Romola Bucks at romola.bucks@uwa.edu.au.

Healthy 18 to 40 year olds are also being recruited and are invited to apply.

Tags: alzheimers-disease, multi-tasking, romola-bucks, university-of-western-australia, uwa,

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