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Attention and Dual-Task Conditions: Physical Therapy Implications for Individuals With Acquired Brain Injury

McCulloch, Karen PT, PhD, NCS

Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy: September 2007 - Volume 31 - Issue 3 - pp 104-118
doi: 10.1097/NPT.0b013e31814a6493

The aim of this article is to consider how impairments in attention may affect the performance of two tasks during balance or walking in individuals recovering from acquired brain injury (ABI). Guidelines from the experimental dual-task paradigm from cognitive psychology are reviewed. In this paper, dual-task conditions are described as the use of two tasks performed simultaneously, but not necessarily following all the experimental guidelines of the dual-task paradigm. How and why dual-task costs may emerge are discussed as well as considerations for task selection. Review of literature that describes dual-task performance problems in older adults is summarized briefly as a foundation for considering how similar conditions may affect individuals with ABI. Studies of individuals with ABI of dual-task performance in balance or walking are reviewed in detail. Examination approaches including observational measures of attention as well as clinical measures of dual-task performance during walking are reviewed. Intervention concepts and approaches are described by review of intervention designs used with older adults and individuals with ABI that describe task selection and use of instructional set for dual-task training. Two intervention strategies described in the literature for treating attention problems are contrasted: (1) an explicit focus on cognitive impairments with the expectation that function will improve as a result and (2) an implicit focus on functional tasks through errorless learning with the expectation that cognition (and attention) will improve. An illustration of the use of both of these strategies in a complementary fashion to improve attention in a patient with ABI is reviewed. Current literature is limited in clearly directing assessment and intervention to improve attention after ABI, but strategies are presented and areas for future research are identified.

Division of Physical Therapy, Department of Allied Health Sciences, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Address correspondence to: Karen McCulloch, E-mail:

© 2007 Neurology Section, APTA