Walking helps some young, healthy people improve their performance on cognitive tasks

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 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 level – as expected based on previous studies – but also d others improving from their baseline sitting. 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 began 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. These findings have the potential to be scaled up and translated to populations where we know the flexibility of neural resources gets compromised.

Eleni Patelaki, Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering. Student, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

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.”

Impact on aging

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

Other authors include John Foxe, Ph.D., and Kevin Mazurek, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester Medical Center. This research was supported by the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience Pilot Program, University of Rochester CTSA award number KL2 TR001999, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institutes of Health. The recordings were made at the University of Rochester Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (UR-IDDRC).


Journal reference:

Patelaki, E. et al. (2022) Young adults who improve performance in dual-task walking show more flexible reallocation of cognitive resources: a moving brain and body imaging (MoBI) study. Cerebral cortex. doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhac227.

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