Insight Into How the Brain Multitasks While Walking

Summary: Walking patterns improve when people embarked on cognitive tasks at the same time, suggesting people are more stable while walking and performing tasks than when they solely focus on walking.

Source: University of Rochester

New research turns the old idiom about not being able to walk and chew gum on its head. Scientists with the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester have shown that the healthy brain is able to multitask while walking without sacrificing how either activity is accomplished.

“This research shows us that the brain is flexible and can take on additional burdens,” said David Richardson, an MD/PhD student in his fifth year in the Pathology & Cell Biology of Disease Program, and first author of the study recently published in the journal NeuroImage. “Our findings showed that the walking patterns of the participants improved when they performed a cognitive task at the same time, suggesting they were actually more stable while walking and performing the task than when they were solely focused on walking.”

During these experiments, researchers used a Mobile Brain/Body Imaging system, or MoBI, located in the Del Monte Institute’s Frederick J. and Marion A. Schindler Cognitive Neurophysiology Lab. The platform combines virtual reality, brain monitoring, and motion capture technology. While participants walk on a treadmill or manipulate objects on a table, 16 high speed cameras record the position markers with millimeter precision, while simultaneously measuring their brain activity.

The MoBI was used to record the brain activity of participants as they walked on a treadmill and were cued to switch tasks. Their brain activity was also recorded as they performed these same tasks while sitting. Brain changes were measured between the cued tasks and showed that during the more difficult the tasks the neurophysiological difference was greater between walking and sitting – highlighting the flexibility of a healthy brain and how it prepares for and executes tasks based on difficulty level.

This shows people walking on a street
The MoBI was used to record the brain activity of participants as they walked on a treadmill and were cued to switch tasks. Image is in the public domain

“The MoBI allows us to better understand how the brain functions in everyday life,” said Edward Freedman, Ph.D., lead author on the study. “Looking at these findings to understand how a young healthy brain is able to switch tasks will give us better insight to what’s going awry in a brain with a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s disease.”

 “Understanding how a young healthy brain can successfully ‘walk and talk’ is an important start, but we also need to understand how these findings differ in the brains of healthy older adults, and adults with neurodegenerative diseases,” said Richardson. “The next stage is expanding this research to include a more diverse group of brains.”

Additional authors include John Foxe, Ph.D., Kevin Mazurek, Ph.D., and Nicholas Abraham of the University of Rochester. This research was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience Pilot Program.

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Kelsie Smith Hayduk
Source: University of Rochester
Contact: Kelsie Smith Hayduk – University of Rochester
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Neural markers of proactive and reactive cognitive control are altered during walking: A Mobile Brain-Body Imaging (MoBI) study” by David Richardson et al. NeuroImage


Neural markers of proactive and reactive cognitive control are altered during walking: A Mobile Brain-Body Imaging (MoBI) study

The processing of sensory information and the generation of motor commands needed to produce coordinated actions can interfere with ongoing cognitive tasks. Even simple motor behaviors like walking can alter cognitive task performance. This cognitive-motor interference (CMI) could arise from disruption of planning in anticipation of carrying out the task (proactive control) and/or from disruption of the execution of the task (reactive control).

In young healthy adults, walking-induced interference with behavioral performance may not be readily observable because flexibility in neural circuits can compensate for the added demands of simultaneous loads.

In this study, cognitive-motor loads were systematically increased during cued task-switching while underlying neurophysiologic changes in proactive and reactive mechanisms were measured. Brain activity was recorded from 22 healthy young adults using 64-channel electroencephalography (EEG) based Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI) as they alternately sat or walked during performance of cued task-switching. Walking altered neurophysiological indices of both proactive and reactive control. Walking amplified cue-evoked late fontal slow waves, and reduced the amplitude of target-evoked fronto-central N2 and parietal P3.

The effects of walking on evoked neural responses systematically increased as the task became increasingly difficult. This may provide an objective brain marker of increasing cognitive load, and may prove to be useful in identifying seemingly healthy individuals who are currently able to disguise ongoing degenerative processes through active compensation.

If, however, degeneration continues unabated these people may reach a compensatory limit at which point both cognitive performance and control of coordinated actions may decline rapidly.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.