Old age impairs the ability to form new associations for declarative memory, but the ability to acquire and retain procedural memories remains relatively intact. Thus, it is unclear whether old age affects the ability to learn the visuomotor associations needed to set efficient fingertip forces for handling familiar objects. We studied the ability for human subjects to use visual cues (color) about the mechanical properties (texture or weight) of a grasped object to control fingertip forces during prehension. Old and young adults (mean age 77 years and 22 years, respectively) grasped and lifted an object that varied in texture at the gripped surfaces (experiment 1: sandpaper versus acetate surface materials) or weight (experiment 2: 200 g versus 400 g). The object was color-coded according to the mechanical property in the "visual cue" condition, and the mechanical property varied unpredictably across lifts in the "no visual cue" condition. In experiment 1 (texture), the young adults' grip force (force normal to the gripped surface) when the object lifted from the support surface was 24% smaller when the surfaces were color-coded. The old adults' grip force did not vary between the visual conditions despite their accurate reports of the grip surface colors prior to each lift. Comparable findings were obtained in experiment 2, when object weight was varied and peak grip force rate prior to object lift-off was measured. Furthermore old and young subjects alike used about 2 N of grip force when lifting the 200 g object in experiment 2. Therefore, the old adults' failure to adjust grip force when the color cue was present cannot be attributed to a general inability or unwillingness to use low grip force when handling objects. We conclude that old age affects the associative learning that links visual identification of an object with the fingertip forces for efficiently handling the object. In contrast, old and young subjects' grip force was influenced by the preceding lift, regardless of visual cues, which supports existing theories that multiple internal representations govern predictive control of fingertip forces during prehension.
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