The Utility of a Virtual Environment in Detecting Executive Dysfunction in Aging
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Traditional tests of prefrontal dysfunction have been found to be poor in predicting real-world deficits. The current study investigated the utility of a virtual environment, thought to be more sensitive to real-world deficits, in the detection of age-related cognitive decline in the frontal lobes. Young (21-40 years) and older (60-76 years) healthy adults were assessed on the JAAM, an office based virtual reality task which tests a wide spectrum of executive abilities including: planning, multi-tasking, and prospective memory. In line with previous literature it was predicted that older adults would be impaired on the multi-tasking and prospective memory measures of the JAAM, yet show comparable performance with the young group on the planning construct. Results revealed significant age-related declines on creative thinking, adaptive thinking, multitasking and all prospective memory measures, as well as the JAAM task as a whole. This study also investigated the differential effects of healthy age-related frontal lobe deterioration on two traditional tests of frontal lobe function, the Wisconsin Card Sorting task-64 (WCST-64), as a measure of dorsolateral prefrontal dysfunction and the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) as a measure of ventromedial prefrontal dysfunction. In line with predictions, results showed significant age-related declines in most of the measures of the WCST but no main effect of age in performance on the IGT. The findings are discussed in relation to previous literature on age-related deterioration in performance of the cognitive constructs tested by the JAAM, and the use of virtual reality as a more ecologically valid measure of prefrontal dysfunction.