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March 28, 2002 Psychologists study motor performance across the lifespan



Karen Li, Virginia Penhune

Psychology researchers Karen Li and Virginia Penhune

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Sigalit Hoffman

A half-million-dollar grant is helping Concordia psychology researchers Virginia Penhune and Karen Li combine their interests to pursue the link between human movement and cognition.

“We’re joining forces,” said Assistant Psychology Professor Karen Li. “We have a common interest in motor performance, but brain imaging, learning, aging, and the role of cognition and attention — that’s really a novel combination.”

The professors received the money to build a special lab to study cognitive and motor skills. The Laboratory for Motor and Cognitive Performance, will be housed in the new Loyola campus science building, which should be ready by September of next year. The grant is part of a Canadian Foundation for Innovation initiative to fund new scientists doing innovative research.

“They’re looking for new researchers who are just getting going with their set-up at a university, and they’re particularly looking for people proposing work that is not being done anywhere else,” said Li, who came to Concordia in September 2000, the same time as Penhune.

Li’s current field of research is how gross motor movements like walking and balance change with age, and how attention is recruited to maintain motor skills. Penhune has been using positron emission tomography, a brain imaging technique, to identify the areas in the brain involved in learning fine motor movements.

The new lab will help the professors study both fine and gross motor movements. A series of cameras is used to track markers that can be placed on different parts of the body to map changes in the position of muscles and joints during a movement.

Penhune plans to use the system to follow the process of learning a new movement, like playing a piece on the piano. As the subject masters the task, the motion becomes smoother. Penhune said that understanding the normal muscle movements involved in learning new tasks may have some important clinical implications.

“Once you know about normal learning, then you can learn about abnormal learning,” she explained. Penhune, who has also been mapping the brain during the learning process, hopes to use the information to help people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, such as strokes.

“If you know more about what parts of the brain are important for learning motor skills, you might be able to find new ways of doing rehabilitation with that that would allow them to relearn some of these skills.”

While Penhune’s work can be useful for rehabilitation, Li’s research might help prevent accidents from happening. Earlier research has hinted that distraction can impair movement, and that this is especially true in older populations.

Li wants to find out at which point during a movement a person is most in danger of falling. This way, he or she can learn to avoid a fall by staying focused during that vulnerable moment, a strategy that will help seniors maintain a higher quality of life.

“Making sure that we can keep most seniors living independently for as long as possible has major economic implications in terms of institutionalization,” Li said. “Independent living is one of the indirect outcomes that we hope to address.”

Though the new laboratory won’t be ready for at least another year, the professors are already co-ordinating a summer research project with Dr. Richard Demont, from Concordia’s Exercise Science Department.

From there, anything can happen. “Soon we can collaborate with the dance department,” Penhune said with a smile.