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Künstler, Erika C. S.; Penning, Melanie D.; Napiorkowski, Natan; Klingner, Carsten M.; Witte, Otto W.; Müller, Hermann J.; Bublak, Peter; Finke, Kathrin (2018): Dual Task Effects on Visual Attention Capacity in Normal Aging. In: Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 9, 1564
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Abstract

Older adults show higher dual task performance decrements than younger adults. While this is assumed to be related to attentional capacity reductions, the precise affected functions are not specified. Such specification is, however, possible based on the "theory of visual attention" (TVA) which allows for modeling of distinct attentional capacity parameters. Furthermore, it is unclear whether older adults show qualitatively different attentional effects or whether they show the same effects as younger adults experience under more challenging conditions. By varying the complexity of the secondary task, it is possible to address this question. In our study, participants performed a verbal whole report of briefly presented letter arrays. TVA-based fitting of report performance delivered parameters of visual threshold to, processing speed C, and visual short-term memory (VSTM) storage capacity K. Furthermore, participants performed a concurrent motor task consisting of continuous tapping of a (simple or complex) sequence. Both TVA and tapping tasks were performed under single and dual task conditions. Two groups of 30 younger adults each performed either the simple or complex tapping, and a group of 30 older adults performed the simple tapping condition. In older participants, VSTM storage capacity declined under dual task conditions. While no such effect was found in younger subjects performing the simple tapping sequence under dual task conditions, the younger group performing the complex tapping task under dual task conditions also showed a significant VSTM capacity reduction. Generally, no significant effect on other TVA parameters or on tapping accuracy was found. Comparable goodness-of-fit measures were obtained for the TVA modeling data in single and dual tasks, indicating that tasks were executed in a qualitatively similar, continuous manner, although quantitatively less efficiently under dual- compared to single-task conditions. Taken together, our results show that the age-specific effects of motor-cognitive dual task interference are reflected by a stronger decline of VSTM storage capacity. They support an interpretation of VSTM as central attentional capacity, which is shared across visual uptake and concurrent motor performance. Capacity limits are reached earlier, and already under lower motor task complexity, in older compared to younger adults.