The split-second into a stumble and fall is filled with shocking terror, with a blink of time to react. The instant dread is warranted, as accidental tumbles send millions of Americans to emergency rooms each year. The problem is especially serious for the elderly, who are more likely to suffer debilitating injury or death.
Utah State University undergrad researcher Garrett Rydalch is exploring what happens in the brain, when a person falls and sees an object he or she can act on, such as a safety handrail. It’s a millisecond-by-millisecond investigation, as Rydalch observes how our onboard cranial computer tries to do the right thing at the right time.
“We’re looking at the idea of ‘affordances,’ which suggests each of us put viewed objects into motor terms automatically,” says the Bountiful, Utah native, who entered USU on a Dean’s Transfer Scholarship after attending Salt Lake Community College. “A potential application of this affordance effect includes encouraging rapid balance reactions needed to avoid a fall.”
Rydalch is among about 30 USU undergraduates, who’ll present their work to state legislators and visitors in Utah’s Capitol Rotunda in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. The annual Undergraduate Research Day, initiated by USU in 2000, is designed to showcase the importance of research in undergraduate education.
With funding from a USU Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities “URCO” grant, Rydalch conducts research with faculty mentor David Bolton, assistant professor, and master’s student Doug McDannald, of USU’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Science. Also on the team are undergrads Hunter Bell, a human biology major and Mahmoud Mansour, an electrical engineering major.
Mansour constructed an innovative booth with a safety harness, goggles to obscure or allow sight and a wall-mounted safety handle that can be instantly visible or covered, to mimic different fall scenarios. With a human subject in the harness and wearing the goggles, Rydalch and the rest of the team can simulate actual falls and record neurological and motor response to varied situations.
“We’re finding vision of a wall-mounted handrail increases excitability in the brain networks involved in grasping that handrail,” says Rydalch, who plans to pursue doctoral studies in neuroscience following USU graduation. “We think objects such as a handrail could spark balance reactions, even before the person is aware of the imminent fall. This could advance research into ways to prevent injury.”
Bolton, who oversees Rydalch and other students’ projects in USU’s Perception-Action Lab, says research provides undergrads valuable experience in learning all the different components of conducting a successful project.
“Students learn the time, thought and effort required to plan and fund a project, physically set up experiments, analyze data and disseminate the outcome,” he says. “This experience is invaluable in considering a potential career in academia in an increasingly competitive job market.”
Rydalch says he firmly believes undergrads should be involved in research, regardless of their field of study and future plans.
“Research provides the opportunity to work closely with professors, interact with other students and community members and collaborate with other researchers,” he says. “Being involved in research in research inspires curiosity and ignites a passion for learning.”