April 11, 2011

UCSF Study on Multitasking Reveals Switching Glitch in Aging Brain

(April 11, 2011)  Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) have pinpointed a reason older adults have a harder time multitasking than younger adults: they have more difficulty switching between tasks at the level of brain networks.

Researchers know that multitasking negatively affects short-term, or “working,” memory in both young and older adults. Working memory is the capacity to hold and manipulate information in the mind for a period of time. It is the basis of all mental operations, from learning a friend’s telephone number, and then entering it into a smart phone, to following the train of a conversation, to conducting complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning.

However, anecdotal accounts of “senior moments” – such as forgetting what one wanted to retrieve from the refrigerator after leaving the couch – combined with scientific studies conducted at UCSF and elsewhere indicate that the impact is greater in older people.

The current study offers insights into what is occurring in the brain in older adults. “Our findings suggest that the negative impact of multitasking on working memory is not necessarily a memory problem, per se, but the result of an interaction between attention and memory,” said the senior author of the study, Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, UCSF associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center.