Generalization of motor learning between distinct functional upper extremity tasks in older adults

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Sydney Schaefer


Disability and functional limitations in everyday life are especially prevalent in later adulthood. Many older adults also have difficulty in carrying out activities of daily living (ADLs) such as eating, dressing, writing, etc. Task-specific training is a viable approach used to improve ADLs in neurorehabilitation. Practicing all the activities that an individual performs on a daily basis with task-specific training, however, is not feasible in current clinical practice due to limited time and services. Instead, what is practiced in therapy is assumed to generalize to what is not practiced in therapy. We have previously demonstrated that generalization occurs in young adults, but the question remains of whether older adults are also able to generalize motor learning as well. The purpose of this study was to investigate generalization of motor learning in healthy older adults. Participants (n=21; age=76.7±6.6 years) performed three motor tasks to establish baseline: simulated feeding, simulated dressing, and writing. Performance was measured as time to complete one trial. Participants were then placed in either a training or control group. The training group completed three days of training on only the feeding task. All participants were then re-tested on all tasks. All tasks were completed with the nondominant arm. Results showed motor learning over the course of training, given that feeding task performance improved and was retained between days. However, this motor learning did not generalize to the dressing and writing tasks. Our data suggests that the generalization of motor learning may be susceptible to the aging process. These findings have direct implications for clinical neurorehabilitation, during which patients cannot feasibly train specifically at a high enough dose to sufficiently promote motor learning on all of their necessary ADLs.

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