, Volume 194, Issue 2, pp 183-190
Date: 13 Jan 2009

Aging affects the ability to use optic flow in the control of heading during locomotion

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Perceived self-motion from optic flow is implicated in the control of locomotion. Aging, which affects visual perception and sensorimotor integration, may result in an inability to use optic flow to guide heading while walking. The purpose of this study was to examine whether advanced age could impact on the steering of locomotion, when changing optic flow directions were presented in an immersive virtual environment (VE). Nine young adults (21.56 ± 3.20 years) and nine older adults (66.11 ± 3.95 years) participated in the study. Subjects were asked to walk while viewing a VE through a head-mounted display unit (Kaiser). The VE viewed by the subjects was a large room displayed as an expanding translational optic flow, with the focus of expansion (FOE) located at neutral, 20° or 40° to the right or left. Their task was to walk straight with respect to the VE. Kinematic data in 3D were collected, from which the body’s centre of mass (CoM) position and heading direction were calculated. Young subjects were able to make proper heading adjustments in the VE, with respect to FOE shifts, but not older individuals. Young subjects altered their CoM trajectory so that it was oriented in the direction opposite to the FOE in the physical environment and resulted in small deviation in the VE. The older adults did not adjust their locomotor patterns in response to the different flows presented and maintained similar walking trajectories across all trials. Advanced age results in an altered control of steering of locomotion in response to changing directions of optic flow. This may be related to an impaired perception and/or use of the optic flow, or due to inherent problems in sensorimotor integration.