Research Article| Volume 121, P7-12, March 2019

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Priming of grasping muscles when viewing a safety handle is diminished with age


      • In young adults, hand muscles are selectively activated when viewing a safety handle.
      • This priming effect based on vision is entirely absent in older adults.
      • Aging may diminish the ability to put our visual world into automatic motor terms.


      Merely viewing objects within reachable space can activate motor cortical networks and potentiate movement. This holds potential value for smooth interaction with objects in our surroundings, and could offer an advantage for quickly generating targeted hand movements (e.g. grasping a support rail to maintain stability). The present study investigated if viewing a wall-mounted safety handle resulted in automatic activation of motor cortical networks, and if this effect changes with age. Twenty-five young adults (18–30 years) and seventeen older adults (65+ years) were included in this study. Single-pulse, transcranial magnetic stimulation was applied over the motor cortical hand representation of young and older adults shortly after they viewed a safety handle within reaching distance. Between trials, vision was occluded and the environment was unpredictably altered to reveal either a safety handle, or no handle (i.e. covered). Modulation of intrinsic hand muscle activity was evident in young adults when viewing a handle, and this was selective in terms of both the muscles activated and the time at which it emerged. By contrast, older adults failed to show any changes when viewing the safety handle. Specifically, the presence of a handle increased corticospinal activity in hand muscles of young adults when TMS was applied 120 ms after opening the goggles (p = .014), but not in the older adults (p > .954). The fact that the visual priming observed in younger adults was absent in older adults suggests that aging may diminish the ability to quickly put our visual world into automatic motor terms.


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