Cognitive and Motor Skills: Adapation over the Lifespan, Neural Signatures, and Transfer from Lab to Field

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Psychology


Selecting the right movements and executing them in the right ways are both important aspects of motor control. The ability to do so skilfully (accurately, automatically and without much mental effort) means that we can work productively, live independently, and interact with our environments efficiently and safely. However, there are points during the lifespan when our performance is reduced compared with the years in which it is optimal. This includes the childhood years when we are less able to select voluntary actions appropriately, and as we age when our bodies become less efficient. Experiments have shown that eye movements can also become skilful, and that a part of the brain, the cerebellum, is stores the memories for these skills. They have also shown that the cerebellum gives us the ability adapt to the ways that our bodies change, and this may be a good way of preserving skill as we get older.

Skilful eye movements are not movements that we notice very much, but they are essential for a range of everyday tasks that allow us to live productively and independently. Reading, which involves moving eyes across text at precisely the right pace is one example, and selecting the right eye movements during driving is another important example in which routines like checking mirrors in sequence and at critical times becomes habitual and automatic. Our work will study eye movement skills in three ways:
1. We will determine how well the automatic selection and execution of eye movements are preserved across the age span, and how well they can be taught.
2. Although we know that the cerebellum is important for learning how to execute eye movements, we don't know whether it is also important for selecting the right movements. We will use brain scanning methods to test whether the cerebellum is recruited when we learn to select movements automatically.
3. We will test these effects in normal people, but it will also be important to do so in a highly skilled population. We plan to use elite cricketers of all ages from childhood through to old age. We will compare their performance to normal people to determine whether involvement in sport improves skill. This group of people are known to have the potential to become highly skilled, so they will be useful for us to test our training methods. We will use technology that allows us to track the eyes to see how highly skilled batsmen select their eye movements and give themselves scope to plan their actions on the basis of the bowlers actions and the path of the ball. We will then train exactly the same skills in novice cricketers and, following training, test their eye movement skills on the field.

Although we will test our effects in cricketers, the project will not only be of benefit to the ways in which we train young cricketers, but will also help us to develop methods for training older people to retain and develop important mental and motor eye movement skills so that they are better able to live productively and .

Technical Summary

Sensory information is used for motor control not only for 'online' guidance, but is also used to construct representations that are used in the skilful, feedforward and automatic execution of movements on the basis of prior experience. While most work in this area has focussed on learning the kinematics of action, there is comparatively little work on the automation of the rules that guide actions. Saccadic eye movements serve as excellent models with which to investigate the automation of action selection and action kinematics under stringent experimental control, and the variation of these abilities across the lifespan.

The ability to select eye movements appropriately is relatively poor in children. In older people, the increasingly inefficient mechanics of the oculomotor apparatus render it prone to kinematic error. However, some motor skills are acquired and retained more effectively by elite sportspeople. Here, I propose to use unskilled individuals and elite cricketers across the age span to investigate the effects of aging and training on the selection and execution of eye movements. I will use saccadic adaptation and conditional, rule-guided eye movements in both the laboratory and the field, and the cerebellar basis of such learning will be investigated using functional MRI. Here, this project builds on previous work to achieve three main goals:
(i) We aim to understand how the ability to learn rules that govern eye movements to automatic performance levels changes from childhood through to old age, and whether a history sporting activity that exercises eye-movement skills contributes to performance advantages in later life;
(ii) We also aim to relate performance to haemodynamic signatures of cerebellar plasticity, and
(iii) To study the eye movement strategies that are automatically implemented by highly skilled batsmen, and determine whether gaze-contingent feedback training of the same skills in unskilled individuals can raise performance.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

- English and Welsh Cricket Board Coaches and the trainee cricketers that they coach
- Road safety agencies

How will they benefit from this research?

The work will allow us to gain a thorough understanding of how the rules that govern eye movements become automatic. It will also reveal the ways in which the ability to develop habitual eye movement skills changes over the lifespan. This has implications for children and young people because training programmes can shape teaching strategies around their limitations and abilities. It will also reveal important information about the capacity of older people to acquire and retain new eye movement skills. This has implications on their abilities in a range of critical abilities such as driving vehicles to maintain their independence, and directing visual attention to hazards in the home and in the workplace. Training programmes for older people may contribute to improved skills that facilitate living and work in safety and with independence.
Description One of the aims of the grant was to conduct brain scanning experiments to understand the role of a brain structure called the cerebellum and the way that it becomes involved in the skilful control of eye movements. This is known to play important roles in the storage of motor memory (the memories that are used for highly skilled movements). We have tested the hypothesis that other parts of the cerebellum become engaged in the use of the higher level, abstract rules that govern eye movements. We have found support for this hypothesis, and have also localised the parts of the cerebellum which are involved.

Another important aim of this experiment was to try to understand the way in which the rules that govern eye movements are learned, from childhood to old age. We have found the time points at which these skills mature from childhood into the teenage years and adulthood, peak and then decline during old age.

Our findings have implications for understanding the brain basis of skill learning, and for understanding the ways in which the young and the elderly are able to use eye movements in daily living.
Exploitation Route Our findings will be of interest in areas concerned with the skilled and automatic deployment of movement and cognitive processes.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport

Description Royal Holloway Matched Funding Studentship
Amount £74,793 (GBP)
Organisation Transport Research Laboratory Ltd (TRL) 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 08/2013 
End 08/2016
Description Summer School Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The Barcelona Cognition, Brain and Technology (BCBT) summer school is an annual international summer school that promotes a systems-level understanding of the functional architecture of the brain and its possible emulation in artificial systems. It addresses students and researchers involved in research at the interface between brains and technology. Students have the opportunity of attending lectures from prominent scientists in the field of brain research, neuroscience, artificial intelligent and related fields. They also attend tutorials and work on projects that will be presented at the end of the 2 weeks of the summer school. Outputs include publicly available recordings of the lecture and a podcast interview.(
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Summer School Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The 2016 Course of the School of Brain Cells and Circuits was dedicated to the cerebellum. The aim was to reconnect different levels of current knowledge and promote cross-fertilization among research subfields, and introduce cutting edge concepts to postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers in the field.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016