Walking Can Improve Cognitive Function

The research found that some young and healthy individuals enhance cognitive function while walking by modifying the way their brains are used.

For some people, walking can boost brain function

For a very long time, people have believed that when walking and a task are combined, both suffer. This isn’t always the case, according to study results from the University of Rochester’s Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience. Some young, healthy individuals improve cognitive function while walking by changing the use of neural resources.  This does not suggest, however, that you should start a hard task while exercising off the cake from the previous night.

“There was no predictor of who would fall into which category before we tested them, we initially thought that everyone would respond similarly,” said Eleni Patelaki, a biomedical engineering 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 first author of the study recently published in Cerebral Cortex. “It was surprising that for some of the subjects it was easier for them to do dual-tasking – do more than one task – compared to single-tasking – doing each task separately. This was interesting and unexpected because most studies in the field show that the more tasks that we have to do concurrently the lower our performance gets.”

Improving means changes in the brain

26 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 30 were asked to view a series of images while either sitting in a chair or walking on a treadmill. Researchers used the Mobile Brain/Body Imaging system, or MoBI, to track the brain activity, kinematics, and behavior of the participants. When a picture changed, participants were prompted to press a button. Participants were told not to click if the same picture appeared back-to-back.

Each participant’s performance on this activity while seated was regarded as their unique behavioral “baseline”. Researchers discovered that when walking was added to doing the same task, various behaviors occurred, with some individuals performing worse than their baseline when sitting – as predicted based on prior research – but others improved relative to their baseline. The electroencephalogram, or EEG, analysis revealed that there was a change in frontal brain function in the 14 participants who improved at the task while walking, but not in the 12 participants who did not. The altered brain activity shown in individuals who performed better on the test may be a sign of enhanced brain flexibility or efficiency.

“To the naked eye, there were no differences in 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 makes them handle complex dual-tasking processes differently,” Patelaki said. “These findings have the potential to be expanded and translated to populations where we know that flexibility of neural resources gets compromised.”

Edward Freedman, Ph.D., associate professor of Neuroscience at the Del Monte Institute led this research that continues to expand how the MoBI is helping neuroscientists discover the mechanisms at work when the brain takes on multiple tasks. His previous work has highlighted the flexibility of a healthy brain, showing 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 the task,” Freedman said. “This gives us a place to start looking in the brains of older adults, especially healthy ones.”

Impact on aging

Expanding this research to older adults could guide scientists to identify a possible marker for ‘super agers’ or people who have a minimal decline in cognitive functions. This marker would be useful in helping better understand what could be going awry in neurodegenerative diseases.

Additional 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, the University of Rochester CTSA award number KL2 TR001999 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institutes of Health. Recordings were conducted at the University of Rochester Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (UR-IDDRC).

Reference: “Young adults who improve performance during dual-task walking show more flexible reallocation of cognitive resources: a mobile brain-body imaging (MoBI) study” by Eleni Patelaki, MSc, John J Foxe, Ph.D., Kevin A Mazurek, Ph.D. and Edward G Freedman, Ph.D., 6 June 2022, Cerebral Cortex.
DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhac227

AgingBrainBrain ActivityCognitionNeuroscienceUniversity of Rochester