Optic flow is a powerful visual cue for the control of locomotion. Considerable research has focused on how healthy young people use and perceive optic flow. However, little is known on how older adults use this type of visual motion to control walking. The purpose of this study is to investigate the ability of young and older adults to adjust their physical walking trajectory in response to a rotation of the optic flow presented in a virtual environment. Ten healthy young adults (mean age 23.49 ± 4.72 yr) and 10 healthy older adults (mean age 76.22 ± 3.11 yr) participated in the study. Subjects were instructed to walk straight in a virtual environment viewed within a head-mounted display unit as they walked overground for 5 m, while the focus of expansion was gradually rotated to the left or the right by 40°. All subjects responded with a similar strategy by rotating their head and body in the direction away from the orientation of the perturbation. The younger subjects achieved almost complete corrections and had very small net heading errors. In contrast, the older adults had delayed and smaller reorientations, particularly in the head, thus showing significantly larger heading errors compared with younger subjects. We conclude that older adults retain the ability to use optic flow to control their walking trajectory, although smaller, delayed head rotations and larger heading errors may indicate an age-dependent effect on sensorimotor coordination.
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