Born to multitask? Walking while using a smartphone could actually boost brain performance

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It’s a common belief that if someone tries to walk and perform another task at the same time, they’ll end up doing neither very well. However, a new study finds the ability to walk while concentrating on something else — like using a smartphone — is a skill that many people are born with.

Researchers from the University of Rochester found that for some, walking actually boosts and changes their brain activity, allowing them to multitask better. They hope it could be a marker for “super agers,” whose brains still function well in old age.

Researchers looked at 26 healthy 18 to 30-year-olds in their study. They found that 14 of them who improved on a task while walking experienced a change in their frontal brain function — which the other 12 did not.

“There was no predictor of who would fall into which category before we tested them, we initially thought that everyone would respond similarly,” says Eleni Patelaki, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student at Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry, in a university release. “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.”

For the study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the participants had to look at a series of images while sitting on a chair and click a button every time it changed — but not if it was the same image again.

They then repeated the experiment while walking. They were all monitored with electroencephalogram, or EEG, and the Mobile Brain/Body Imaging system (MoBI), which monitored brain activity, kinematics, and behavior.

Scientists find a ‘surprising difference’ among strong multitaskers

“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 adds.

“These findings have the potential to be expanded and translated to populations where we know that flexibility of neural resources gets compromised.”

Study leader Dr. Edward Freedman, associate professor of Neuroscience at the Del Monte Institute, says that the research could be expanded to older adults and identify “super agers.”

“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 says. “This gives us a place to start looking in the brains of older adults, especially healthy ones.”

The team adds that expanding this research to older adults could guide scientists towards the discovery of a definitive biomarker for super agers — who still enjoy the same cognitive health that people 30 or 40 years younger have. Such a biomarker could also pave the way to understanding and treating certain brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s.

South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.

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