In the past decade, there has emerged a vast research literature dealing with attempts to harness brain plasticity in older adults, with a view to improving cognitive function. Since cognitive training (CT) has shown restricted utility in this regard, attention has increasingly turned to interventions that use adjunct procedures such as motor training or physical activity (PA). As evidence builds that these have some efficacy, it becomes necessary to ensure that the outcome measures being used to infer causal influence upon cognitive function are subjected to appropriate critical appraisal. It has been highlighted previously that the choice of specific tasks used to demonstrate transfer to the cognitive domain is of critical importance. In the context of most intervention studies, standardized tests and batteries of cognitive function are de rigueur. The argument presented here is that the latent constructs to which these tests relate are not usually subject to a sufficient level of analytic scrutiny. We present the historical origins of some exemplar tests, and give particular consideration to the limits on explanatory scope that are implied by their composition and the nature of their deployment. In addition to surveying the validity of these tests when used to appraise intervention-related changes in cognitive function, we also consider their neurophysiological correlates. In particular, we argue that the broadly distributed brain activity associated with the performance of many tests of cognitive function, extending to the classical motor networks, permits the impact of interventions based on motor training or PA to be better understood.
- Journal Article