Study aims to overcome obstacles - literally

by Kalani Simpson, UNMC public relations | August 29, 2018

Image with caption: From left, JC Chien, Ph.D., and Joseph Siu, Ph.D.

From left, JC Chien, Ph.D., and Joseph Siu, Ph.D.

When it comes to walking, "everybody is Michael Jordan or LeBron James," said JC Chien, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the College of Allied Health Professions' physical therapy program.

But, just as those all-time basketball greats are putting in more work than we realize to achieve feats of athletic derring-do, so are the rest of us -- even in a task as "natural" as walking.

"Crossing obstacles requires executive function, a higher cortical control," said Joseph Siu, Ph.D., associate professor of PT education and director of the Clinical Movement Analysis (C-MOVA) Lab.

Dr. Siu is principal investigator of a study "Effects of Aging on the Obstacle Negotiation Strategy while Stepping over Multiple Obstacles," published recently in Nature Scientific Reports. Dr. Chien was a collaborator on the study.

Previous UNMC PT research has explored "dual-task costs" to show how activities like walking are affected not only by physical ability, but also cognition, which is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as "the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses."

Or, as Dr. Siu put it, above, "executive function."

As its title implies, Drs. Siu and Chien's study looks at how younger, and then older, adults step over more than one obstacle when walking. It's one of only a handful of known research studies to include more than one step-over and how aging could affect our ability to handle stepping over objects.

Why study this? Falls are a big problem for older adults and 47 percent of those falls are caused by trips.

"Understanding what strategies are involved in obstacle negotiation in older adults could reduce fall risks," the study said.

Yes, strategies. Just as track athletes adjust their stride between hurdles, so do we. Study participants, consciously and unconsciously, "make decisions on which leg they cross and how they land," Dr. Siu said.

Not only do we pick a path ahead of time, and in real time, but one leg "signals" the next leg on how to execute its next move.

Researchers found that the ability to "transfer" had degraded in the older group. Physically, they are capable, but . . .

"These functions can be reduced in older adults due to the deterioration of the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision making and the controlling and planning of complex cognitive behavior," the study said.

Information gleaned may help the design of home modification and hospital environments in order to reduce falls or help clinicians teach patients to regain function.

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Tom O'Connor
August 29, 2018 at 9:37 AM

Congrats on being published in this prestigious journal! Great work!

Sara Pirtle
August 29, 2018 at 9:25 AM

Very useful study - well done!

Greg Karst
August 29, 2018 at 7:32 AM

Congratulations on the publication. Keep up the good work on this topic -- fall reduction is extremely important in both personal and societal terms, and your work is a welcome addition to our understanding of how we might mitigate that risk.