It was long thought that when walking is combined with a task, both suffer, but researchers at the University of Rochester’s Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience found that this isn’t always the case.
Some young and healthy people improve performance on cognitive tasks while walking by altering the use of neural resources. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work on a big assignment while walking away from that pie from the night before.
“There was no predictor of who would fall into which category before we tested them. We initially thought everyone would react the same way,” said Eleni Patelaki, a Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in the Frederick J. and Marion A. Schindler Cognitive Neurophysiology Laboratory and lead author of the study now available in the cerebral cortex.
“It was surprising that for some subjects it was easier to dual-task – do more than one task – compared to single-tasking – 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 becomes.”
Improving means changes in the brain
Using the Mobile Brain/Body Imaging System, or MoBI, researchers tracked the brain activity, kinematics and behavior of 26 healthy 18- to 30-year-olds as they looked at a series of images, either sitting in a chair or walking on a chair. treadmill. The participants were instructed to click a button each time the image changed. If the same image appeared back-to-back, 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 performing the same task, researchers found different behaviors appeared, with some people performing worse than their sitting baseline — as expected from previous studies — but also some others improving compared to their baseline. for sitting.
The electroencephalogram or EEG data showed that the 14 participants who improved in 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 the task suggests increased flexibility or efficiency in the brain.
“By the naked eye, there were no differences between our participants. It was only when we began to analyze their behavior and brain activity that we discovered the surprising difference in the group’s neural signature and what makes them approach complex dual-tasking processes differently. Patelaki said. “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., an associate professor of Neuroscience at the Del Monte Institute, led this research that continues to expand how the MoBI helps neuroscientists discover the mechanisms at work when the brain takes on multiple tasks. His previous work has emphasized the flexibility of a healthy brain. The more difficult the task, the greater the neurophysiological difference between walking and sitting.
“These new findings highlight that the MoBI can show us how the brain responds to walking and how the brain responds to task,” Freedman said. “This gives us a place to start searching the brains of older adults, especially healthy ones.”
Impact on aging
Extending this research to older adults could help scientists identify a potential marker for “superagers,” or those with minimal decline in cognitive function. This marker would be useful to better understand what could go wrong in neurodegenerative diseases.