Teens Appear Better at Multi-Tasking than Older Adults

By Ed Silverstein April 13, 2011

Teenagers claim they can do their homework, respond to email, text a friend, and listen to a CD all at the same time – and not forget what they saw and heard.

Many parents may be doubtful about the teen’s ability to multi-task. However, some new research may actually back the teens.

Teens and younger adults appear to be better at multi-tasking than are older adults, according to a new study.

The study comes at a time when electronic media bombards people with sounds and images coming from diverse devices.

It is true that multi-tasking negatively impacts what is called “short-term” or “working” memory in both younger and older adults.

But researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have found that it is more difficult for older adults to “switch between tasks at the level of brain networks,” according to a new report.

The California researchers said in an article appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that multi-tasking negatively impacts “the retention of information over brief periods of time. This impact of interference on working memory is exacerbated with normal aging.”

New research shows the brain’s ability to ignore distractions decreases with age and it also impacts working memory.

In the study, scientists compared the working memory of young men and women (mean age 24.5) and older men and women (mean age 69.1) in a visual memory test involving multi-tasking. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers tracked blood flow in the subjects’ brains to monitor the activity of neural circuits and networks.

The subjects viewed a scene of nature and kept it in their minds for 14.4 seconds. An interruption took place. A picture of a face appeared and subjects were asked to identify its gender and age. They were then asked to recall the original nature scene.

Older adults found it more difficult to maintain the memory of the original image, the researchers said.

However, younger adults “re-established connection with the memory maintenance network following the interruption and disengaged from the interrupting image. The older adults, on the other hand, failed both to disengage from the interruption and to reestablish the neural network associated with the disrupted memory,” the researchers said.

“These results indicate that deficits in switching between functional brain networks underlie the impact of multitasking on working memory in older adults,” researcher Wesley C. Clapp wrote.

“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,” added the senior author of the University of California study, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, an associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center.

“The impact of distractions and interruptions reveals the fragility of working memory,” added Gazzaley. “This is an important fact to consider, given that we increasingly live in a more demanding, high-interference environment, with a dramatic increase in the accessibility and variety of electronic media and the devices that deliver them, many of which are portable.”

In other recent research, UCSF scientists put in place robotic pharmacy workers which can handle the multitude of prescriptions by processing electronic orders directly from doctors and nurses—even offering the ability to dispense individual pills, according to a report from TechZone360.


Ed Silverstein is a TechZone360 contributor. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Janice McDuffee

TechZone360 Contributor

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