Complex Walking and Brain Stimulation Improve Function in Older Adults

Congratulations to Drs. David Clark, Ruogu Fang and UF collaborators at the University of Florida (UF) on receiving their NIH R01 grant titled “Cognitively engaging walking exercise and neuromodulation to enhance brain function in older adults.”

Dr. David Clark (PI), an associate professor in the College of Medicine, and Dr. Ruogu Fang, an associate professor in the J. Crayton Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering, along with multidisciplinary co-investigators from the College of Public Health and Health Professions, are pursuing groundbreaking research in enhancing cognitive and walking function among older adults.

Clark, an expert in rehabilitation and neural control of walking, is also a scientist at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center where he leads the Motor Function Initiative and Human Motor Performance Core of the Brain Rehabilitation Research Center.

Their innovative approach combines complex aerobic walking exercises with non-invasive electrical brain stimulation to restore lost abilities and improve overall well-being. These findings hold promise for preserving function and independence in aging individuals.

The investigative team consists of experts in aging, non-invasive brain stimulation, motor control, cognitive neuroscience, rehabilitation science, and neuroimaging.

The study focuses on prefrontal neuroplasticity using cognitive engagement and frontal lobe transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). This mild electrical brain stimulation technique may enhance the effects of behavioral interventions on cognitive and motor function.

Building upon successful Phase 1 trials, the researchers plan to establish efficacy, investigate intervention response mechanisms, and develop a multi-site research infrastructure. They will enroll 104 older adults with age-related cognitive decline who will undergo an 18-session high-intensity aerobic walking program that engages the prefrontal cortex.

In her role, Dr. Fang, an accomplished biomedical data scientist and Director of the Smart Medical Informatics Learning and Evaluation (SMILE) lab, will lead the research on machine learning techniques to investigate response mechanisms. This includes studying task-specific prefrontal activity during walking using fNIRS, modeling person-specific tDCS current flow using MRI, and exploring their association with behavioral outcomes. Specifically, person-specific MRI-derived current density models will be utilized to calculate the components of tDCS current, namely intensity and direction. Supervised machine learning algorithms utilizing whole-brain models will be employed to predict intervention “responders” based on current intensity and convergence in current direction.

The potential impact of this study on healthcare for older adults is substantial. Successful outcomes could provide insights into the mechanisms behind complex walking and tDCS effects, enabling the development of personalized non-invasive brain stimulation techniques. This research represents a significant step towards enhancing function and independence in older adults, offering hope for a healthier and more fulfilling life.

UF collaborators:

  • David Clark, Principal Investigator (College of Medicine and Malcom Randall VA Medical Center)
  • Emily Fox, (Dept of Physical Therapy and Brooks Rehabilitation)
  • Adam Woods, (Dept of Clinical and Health Psychology)
  • Ruogu Fang, (Dept of Biomedical Engineering)
  • Aprinda Indahlastari, (Dept of Clinical and Health Psychology)
  • John Williamson, (Dept of Psychiatry and Malcom Randall VA Medical Center)
  • Dorian Rose, (Dept of Physical Therapy and Malcom Randall VA Medical Center)
  • Xiangyang Lou, (“George”) Lou (Dept of Biostatistics)