Ecological assessment of age-related spatial learning and navigation difficulties : role of memory, executive and motor control decline

décembre 2012 Directeur(s) de thèse : Christian GROSS Résumé de thèse

Since several years, virtual reality is widely used in neuropsychology, especially for the study of spatial cognition. The goal of its use is to respond to the lack of ecological validity of classical tests and to the lack of experimental control of assessments in real situations. The studies in the domain of spatial cognition reveal the complexity of learning and navigation activities in large scales spaces and suggest a multifactorial origin to spatial learning and navigation in older adults. The aim of this thesis will be first to verify the ecological validity of our virtual reality application, with a direct comparison of spatial learning and navigation performances between real and virtual learning conditions, in young and old participants. Another goal will be to confirm the hypothesis on the role of executive and memory decline in age-related spatial learning and navigation difficulties. Finally, the role of motor control in spatial learning in large scale spaces, which is poorly studied within the framework of aging, will be tested. With the use of a virtual reality application, requiring memorizing a path in a virtual district replicating a district of Bordeaux, we have studied the effects of aging on spatial memory and navigation performances. We compared real and virtual, active and passive learning conditions and studied the relation between spatial memory and navigation performances with neurocognitive measures and self-report questionnaires on everyday navigation difficulties. Our main results showed a negative effect of aging on the performances in our application, with pattern of results similar between real and virtual learning conditions in young and old participants. We obtained a good relation between measures from our virtual application and everyday navigation difficulties reported by the young participants but no differences between young and old participants on everyday navigation difficulties. These results confirm the good ecological validity of our virtual application and favor the use of direct navigation and spatial memory measures instead of self-report questionnaires for older adults. They also showed directly the role of memory and executive decline in older adults’ navigation difficulties. Contrary to the results obtained with the young participants, the motor control had a negative effect on navigation performances in older adults. We will discuss of the neurocognitive hypothesis already proposed concerning the origin of navigation difficulties due to aging. Also, the role of motor activities and dual-task effect on spatial navigation performances in older adults will be examined.