Walking improves brain performance, but only for certain people

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Not everyone excels at multitasking. Recently, a team from the University of Rochester Medical Center found walking can boost cognitive performance – but only for some people. Certain young and healthy people performed better on a series of cognitive tasks while walking, while others 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 first study author 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, 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.”

How does multitasking change the brain?

Using the Mobile Brain/Body Imaging system (MoBI), study authors examined the brain activity, kinematics, and behavior of 26 healthy young adults (ages 18-30) as they looked at a collection of various images. Importantly, each person performed the activity twice, once while sitting and then again while walking on a treadmill. The task was simple: each time the picture changed, click a button. If the same image appeared back-to-back, participants were instructed to not click.

The team considered each participant’s performance while sitting as their personal behavioral “baseline.” When participants started walking, some notable differences between them became apparent. Some people performed worse than their sitting baseline, which researchers expected based on previous studies, but others actually improved in comparison to their sitting baseline.

Meanwhile, EEG brain scan data showed that the 14 participants who performed better while walking displayed a change in their frontal brain function not seen among the other 12 people who did not improve. According to researchers, this observed change in brain activity suggests increased cognitive 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 explains. “These findings have the potential to be expanded and translated to populations where we know that flexibility of neural resources gets compromised.”

Could good multitaskers become ‘SuperAgers’?

Edward Freedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of neuroscience at the Del Monte Institute, led this research. He explains that the MoBI is helping neuroscientists better analyze the brain and discover the mechanisms at work when the mind takes on multiple tasks. His previous work has focused on the incredible flexibility of a healthy brain, finding that 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 concludes. “This gives us a place to start looking in the brains of older adults, especially healthy ones.”

Further research focusing specifically on older adults may lead to the identification of a possible marker for “SuperAgers” — or people who have a minimal decline in cognitive functions. Finding a marker like that would be huge in terms of better understanding what goes wrong in neurodegenerative diseases.

The study is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

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