Current projects

At the DNCLab, we have interests in three core programs of research:

Program 1

Developmental trajectories of multitasking effects on motor control: a longitudinal study of cognitive, academic and social outcomes. (collaborators: Dr Jasmine Menant (Neura), Prof Stephen Lord (Neura), A/Prof Melanie Porter (Macquarie)).

In young children, there is strong evidence that movement is vital to cognitive development. The ability to carry out cognitive and motor tasks at the same time (i.e. multitasking) is a critical skill for daily living and social inclusion across the home and school settings.

Children with motor coordination problems show increased levels of inattention, hyperactivity, psychosocial difficulties, internalising problems, and poor academic achievement. Further, children may be especially challenged when it comes to prioritisation of attention when engaging in concurrent cognitive and motor activities because of poorly developed or immature executive control systems.

Yet, in comparison to the extensive research on multitasking in the ageing population, little is known about developmental trajectories in dual-task prioritisation in childhood through adolescence, and the impact on differential academic, cognitive, and social outcomes.

This program of research funded by the Australian Research Council (Hocking #DE160100042) will use a lifespan and individual-differences approach to investigate three core aims:

  1. to explore the maturational periods of multitasking during gait and balance control from childhood to adolescence and into early adulthood,
  2. to examine whether deviations in multitasking trajectories reflect differential cognitive, social and academic outcomes, and
  3. to determine the developmental changes (in childhood through adolescence) in activation of the prefrontal cortex during dual-task walking and relation to executive functions using functional near-infrared spectoscopy (in collaboration with Prof. Stephen Lord and Dr Jasmine Menant at Neuroscience Research Australia, Sydney).

Program 2

Attentional demands of stepping, gait and postural control across genetic developmental disorders (collaborators: Dr Jasmine Menant (Neura), Prof Stephen Lord (Neura), A/Prof Melanie Porter(Macquarie)).

Children with compromised attention and executive functioning due to an underlying developmental disability may be especially compromised when required to prioritize attention during multitasking. For example, it is becoming increasingly clear that unique cognitive strengths and weaknesses appear to interact with motor performance to define cognitive-motor profiles across Williams syndrome and Down syndrome.

However, it has been a long-held assumption that all children with developmental disorders experience a similar degree or type of motor difficulty, and current interventions have tended to adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach, which is not likely to produce long-term improvements in motor functioning, with significant implications for academic, cognitive and social outcomes.

By using sensitive dual-task paradigms that equate level of difficulty to ensure individuals are challenged at appropriate levels, the overarching purpose of this research program is to examine the effect of manipulating modality and difficulty of secondary cognitive tasks on stepping, gait and postural control in genetic developmental disorders. The core aims are threefold:

  1. to examine the extent to which unique impairments in executive control and attention impact on whole-body control using sensitive dual-task paradigms from early childhood onwards,
  2. to investigate the neural correlates (using structural DWI imaging and resting state fMRI) of attentional inputs for gait control across the developmental trajectory, and
  3. to explore whether the unique strengths and weaknesses in the executive function profile map onto deficiencies in dual-task gait interference and their neural correlates.

Program 3

GaitWay XR™ A randomized controlled trial of the efficacy of an immersive virtual reality game-based intervention to improve motor skills in children with developmental disabilities Academic collaborators: Prof Nora Shields (La Trobe), A/Prof Ross Clark (USC), Prof Rhoshel Lenroot (University of New Mexico).

Industry partners: Playing Forward, Health Innovation Technology Lab, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Innovation Studio

Children with DD frequently have impaired development of motor skills, which together with impairments in social and communication and comorbid disorders may reduce their opportunity to participate in social, educational, and vocational activities. Motor skills have also been shown to be important for cognitive and social development. Current physical rehabilitation programs are typically not optimised for the specific developmental problems common in DD, and access is often limited by cost or availability of therapists. Tech-nological solutions such as interventions within augmented or virtual reality have the potential to improve access, but their effectiveness is highly dependent on the level of immersion and engagement of participants. We therefore created a game-based intervention within an immersive virtual-reality environment in which game activities are designed to selectively target gross motor skills (e.g. dynamic balance, bilateral coordination, locomotion).

We have developed a fully automatic and non-invasive approach to whole body motion capture using machine learning techniques such as (deep) artificial neural networks, which provide fine-grained classification of biomechanical profiles that guide the type and difficulty level of the motor exercises and to monitor changes in movement kinematic profiles over time. This creates an adaptive closed-loop system that operates in real-time to customise the challenge—targeting and personalising specific motor skill domains to ensure optimal learning for each child.

The primary goals of the study are:

  1. Determine whether the GaitWay XR intervention results in significant improvements in motor function compared to a standard VR-based game (primary outcome measure).
  2. Determine whether there are differences in level of treatment engagement between GaitWay XR and the alternative VR-based game with no physical activity or motor component.
  3. Determine whether use of branded characters and scenes from an existing entertainment product enhances engagement with the intervention and if this predicts greater improvements in motor, cognitive and social skills.
  4. Determine how measurements of motor changes obtained by the artificial neural network algorithm compare to measurements of motor changes using gold standard lab-based measures of movement kinematics.

In addition, we will explore the following:

  1. Do social and cognitive measures show pre-post improvements, as well as how these changes are related to outcome measures of motor function?
  2. Are there characteristics of baseline motor “signatures” that predict response to the intervention?