The study performed at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center involved 48 participants and compared the results of the half who were between ages 18 and 38 with the other half who were between 65 and 90. The researchers wanted to find out if older adults had a harder time paying attention, and if they were affected differently in their ability to enhance or suppress relevant information, said Paul J. Laurienti, M.D., Ph.D., lead researcher and associate professor of radiology.
According to Christina E. Hugenschmidt, a Ph.D. candidate at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, there were two main working mechanisms of attention. It speeds up the brain's processing of what you want to pay attention to, and slows down the processing of what you want to ignore.
"There are two kinds of attention we were interested in studying -- voluntary attention and involuntary attention," said Laurienti. He also expressed that the researchers were interested in finding out if older adults had a harder time paying attention, and if they were affected differently in their ability to enhance or suppress relevant information. "We all know that we can choose to focus on one sense and ignore another. For instance, you might be able to ignore the sounds of the television while you read the paper. But sometimes a very salient stimulus can capture your attention anyway -- for instance, if the fire alarm went off while you were reading the paper," he said.
Voluntary attention was measured by comparing the amount of people's response which sped up by knowing that they were to se or hear a target and how much they were slowed down if they were expecting a target in another sense. While involuntary attention made the participants perform the same task without letting them what they were going to witness.
The researchers compared visual tasks that were preceded by other visual tasks with visual tasks that were preceded by auditory tasks. This allowed them to measure how quickly the participants could switch from one sense to the other. "These data showed that older adults still successfully engaged their attention, both in terms of speeding up and slowing down," said Hugenschmidt
"Older adults were also quite similar to younger adults in how much of their attention was captured involuntarily. Even as we age, this study suggests that the brain's ability to engage multisensory attention remains intact," he added. Future research includes the effect of a highly distracting environment (unlike a controlled laboratory environment) on adults' ability to focus attention, and the effect of an attention-training program.