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Walking Gives the Brain a ‘Step-Up’ in Function for Some

Summary: For some, cognitive performance on tasks improves as they walk through a change in neural resource use.

Font: University of Rochester

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

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

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should be working on a big task while washing off last night’s cake.

“There was no predictor of who would fall into which category before testing them, we initially thought they would all respond similarly,” said Eleni Patelaki, a Ph.D. 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 some of the subjects found it easier to double-task (do more than one task) compared to single-task (do each task separately). This was interesting and unexpected because most studies in the field show that the more tasks we have to do at the same time, the lower our performance.”

Getting better 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 18- to 30-year-olds as they viewed a series of images, either sitting in a chair or walking on a treadmill. Participants were instructed to click a button each time the image changed. If the same image appeared side by side, participants were asked not to click.

The performance achieved by each participant on this task while seated was considered their personal behavioral ‘baseline’. When walking was added to perform the same task, the researchers found that different behaviors appeared, with some people performing worse than their baseline sitting, as expected based on previous studies, but also with some others improving compared to their baseline. seated base.

The electroencephalogram, or EEG, data showed that the 14 participants who improved on the walking task 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 got better at the task suggests greater flexibility or efficiency in the brain.

“To the naked eye, there were no differences in our participants. It wasn’t until we started to analyze their behavior and brain activity that we found the striking difference in the neural signature of the group and what makes them handle complex dual-tasking processes differently,” Patelaki said.

Some healthy young people improve performance on cognitive tasks while walking by changing the use of neural resources. The image is in the public domain

“These findings have the potential to be expanded and translated 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 on how MoBI is helping neuroscientists uncover the mechanisms at work when the brain multitasks. His previous work has highlighted the flexibility of a healthy brain, showing that the more difficult the task, the greater the neurophysiological difference between walking and sitting.

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

“This gives us a place to start looking in the brains of older adults, especially healthy ones.”

Extending this research to older adults could lead scientists to identify a possible marker of “superaging,” or people who have minimal decline in cognitive functions. This marker would be useful to help better understand what might be going wrong in neurodegenerative diseases.

See also

This shows a man working to fix a train track at night.

About this cognitive research news

Author: press office
Font: University of Rochester
Contact: Press Office – University of Rochester
Image: The image is in the public domain.

original research: Open access.
“Young adults who improve 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-body imaging (MoBI) study


In young adults, combining a cognitive task with walking may have different effects on gait and cognitive task performance. In some cases, performance drops sharply while in others compensatory mechanisms maintain performance. This study investigates the preliminary finding of behavioral improvement in Go/NoGo response inhibition task performance when walking compared to sitting, which was observed in the pilot 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 treadmill.


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


Changes in neural activity associated with improved performance during dual tasking show promise as markers of cognitive flexibility that can potentially help assess cognitive decline in aging and neurodegeneration.

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