Walking gives the brain a ‘speed-up’ of function for some – Neuroscience News

Summary: For some, cognitive performance on tasks improves while walking via a change in the use of neural resources.

Source: University of Rochester

It has long been thought that when walking is combined with a task, both suffer. Researchers at the University of Rochester’s Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience have found that’s not always the case.

Some young, healthy people improve their performance on cognitive tasks while walking by altering the use of neural resources.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work on a big task while stepping on that cake from the night before.

“There were no predictors of who would fall into which category before testing them, we initially thought everyone would react the same way,” said Eleni Patelaki, who holds a doctorate in biomedical engineering. student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in the Frederick J. and Marion A. Schindler Cognitive Neurophysiology Laboratory and first author of the study now published in Cerebral cortex.

“It was surprising that for some of the subjects it was easier for them to double-task – do more than one task – compared to single-task – do each task separately. This was interesting and unexpected because most of the Field studies show that the more tasks we have to perform simultaneously, the more our performance declines.

Improving means changes in the brain

Using the Mobile Brain/Body Imaging, or MoBI, system, researchers monitored the brain activity, kinematics, and behavior of 26 healthy people between the ages of 18 and 30 as they watched a series of images, either sitting on a chair or walking on a chair. conveyor belt. Participants had to click a button each time the image changed. If the same image appeared back to back, participants were instructed not to click.

Each participant’s performance on this task while seated was considered their personal behavioral “baseline.” When walking was added to performing the same task, the investigators found that different behaviors emerged, with some people performing below their baseline sitting position – as expected based on previous studies – but also others improving from their baseline sitting position.

Electroencephalogram, or EEG, data showed that the 14 participants who improved on the task while walking had a change in frontal brain function that was absent in the 12 participants who did not improve. This change in brain activity exhibited by those who improved on the task suggests increased brain flexibility or efficiency.

“To the naked eye, there was no difference between our participants. It wasn’t until we started to analyze their behavior and brain activity that we discovered the startling difference in the group’s neural signature and what makes them handle complex dual-task processes differently,” Patelaki said.

Some young, healthy people improve their performance on cognitive tasks while walking by altering the use of neural resources. Image is in public domain

“These findings have the potential to be extended and transposed to populations where we know the flexibility of neural resources is compromised.”

Edward Freedman, Ph.D., associate professor of neuroscience at the Del Monte Institute led this research that continues to expand how MoBI helps neuroscientists uncover the mechanisms at work when the brain multitasks. His previous work highlighted the flexibility of a healthy brain, showing that the harder the task, the greater the neurophysiological difference between walking and sitting.

“These new findings underscore that MoBI can show us how the brain responds to walking and how the brain responds to task,” Freedman said.

“It gives us a place to start looking into the brains of older people, especially healthy ones.”

Extending this research to the elderly could guide scientists to identify a possible marker for the “super-aged” or people who have minimal decline in cognitive functions. This marker would be useful in helping to better understand what could go wrong in neurodegenerative diseases.

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About this cognitive research news

Author: Press office
Source: University of Rochester
Contact: Press Office – University of Rochester
Image: Image is in public domain

Original research: Free access.
“Young adults who improve their performance during dual-task walking show more flexible reallocation of cognitive resources: a mobile brain and body imaging (MoBI) study” by Eleni Patelaki et al. Cerebral cortex


Young adults who improve performance during dual-task walking show more flexible reallocation of cognitive resources: a mobile brain and body imaging (MoBI) study


In young adults, associating a cognitive task with walking may have different effects on walking and cognitive task performance. In some cases, performance drops markedly while in others, compensation mechanisms maintain performance. This study examines the preliminary finding of behavioral improvement in the performance of the Go/NoGo response inhibition task during walking compared to sitting, which was observed at the piloting stage.

Materials and methods

Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI) was used to record electroencephalographic (EEG) activity, three-dimensional (3D) gait kinematics, and behavioral responses in the cognitive task, while sitting or walking on a conveyor belt.


In a cohort of 26 young adults, 14 participants improved in measures of cognitive task performance while walking compared to sitting. These participants exhibited gait-related EEG amplitude reductions on the frontal regions of the scalp during key stages of inhibitory control (conflict monitoring, control implementation, and pre-motor stages), accompanied by variability reduced stride and faster responses to stimuli compared to those who did not improve. In contrast, 12 participants who did not improve showed no difference in EEG amplitude by physical condition.


Neural activity changes associated with improved dual task performance show promise as markers of cognitive flexibility that can potentially help assess cognitive decline in aging and neurodegeneration.

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