For some, walking gives the brain a “step-up” in its function


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Summary: In some, cognitive performance on walking tasks improves through altered use of neural resources.

Source: University of Rochester

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

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

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should be working on a big task while you’re leaving last night’s cake.

“There was no indication of who would fall into which category before we tested them. We initially thought everyone would react similarly,” said Eleni Patelaki, a biomedical engineer with a PhD. 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 now published study cerebral cortex.

“It was surprising that some of the subjects found it easier to dual-task – do more than one task – compared to single-task – do each task separately. This was interesting and unexpected because most studies in this field show that the more tasks we have to do at the same time, the lower our performance.”

Improvement means changes in the brain

Using the Mobile Brain/Body Imaging System (MoBI), the researchers monitored the brain activity, kinematics, and behavior of 26 healthy 18- to 30-year-olds while they viewed a series of images, either while seated in a chair or in a chair walked treadmill. Participants were instructed to click a button each time the image changed. When the same image appeared back-to-back, participants were asked not to click.

The performance that each participant achieved 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 emerged, with some individuals performing worse than their seated baseline – as expected from previous studies – but others improving compared to their seated baseline.

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 improved on the task suggests increased flexibility or efficiency in the brain.

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

This shows a person walking
Some young and healthy people improve performance on cognitive tasks while walking by altering the use of neural resources. The image is in the public domain

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

Edward Freedman, Ph.D., associate professor of neuroscience at the Del Monte Institute, led this research, which further expands how the MoBI is helping neuroscientists uncover the mechanisms at work when the brain takes on multiple tasks. 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 underscore that the MoBI can show us how the brain responds to walking and how the brain responds to the task,” Freedman said.

“This gives us a starting point to look inside the brains of older adults, particularly healthy ones.”

Extending this research to older adults could lead scientists to identify a possible marker for “super-agers,” or people with minimal decline in cognitive function. This marker would be helpful to better understand what might go wrong in neurodegenerative diseases.

See also

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About this news from cognitive research

Author: press office
Source: University of Rochester
Contact: Press Office – University of Rochester
Picture: The image is in the public domain

Original research: Open access.
“Young adults who improve two-task walking performance demonstrate more flexible cognitive resource reallocation: a mobile brain-body imaging (MoBI) study” by Eleni Patelaki et al. cerebral cortex


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


In young adults, combining a cognitive task with walking can have differential effects on gait and cognitive task performance. In some cases, performance decreases significantly, while in other compensatory mechanisms, performance is maintained. This study examines the preliminary finding of behavioral improvement in Go/NoGo response inhibition task performance during walking compared to sitting observed in the pilot phase.

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 of sitting or walking on a treadmill.


In a cohort of 26 young adults, 14 participants improved in measures of cognitive task performance when walking compared to sitting. These participants demonstrated walking-related EEG amplitude reductions over frontal scalp regions during key phases of inhibitory control (conflict surveillance, control implementation, and premotor stages), accompanied by reduced step-to-step variability and faster responses to stimuli compared to those who did not improve. In contrast, 12 participants who did not improve showed no differences in EEG amplitude across physical condition.


The neural activity changes associated with the increase in performance during dual tasking are promising markers of cognitive flexibility that can potentially help assess cognitive decline in aging and neurodegeneration.

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