Solving tasks on the go can cause changes in brain activity and increase the efficiency of their performance

(ORDO NEWS) — It has long been believed that if you do two things at the same time, for example, combine walking with work or solving complex cognitive tasks, then the efficiency of performing at least one of them will necessarily suffer.

US researchers have found that this is not always the case. Many young people under 30, by redistributing brain resources, cope with solving cognitive tasks on the go even better than in a sitting position.

To perform both routine and more complex cognitive tasks, the brain needs to coordinate the work of many distributed neural networks. Therefore, the accepted opinion, supported by a number of studies, is that there is a limit to the number and complexity of processes that a person can perform simultaneously.

Due to the simultaneous performance of cognitive and motor tasks (such as walking), there is competition for the available neural resources of the brain – or cognitive-motor interference (CMI), which leads to a decrease in the performance or efficiency of performing both tasks.

As a result, CMI provokes changes in gait (step length, walking speed), an increase in reaction time and time for performing cognitive tasks, and a decrease in the accuracy of their performance.

However, not all the results of previous studies were unambiguous, so scientists from the Del Monte Institute of Neurology at the University of Rochester (USA) decided to take a closer look at what happens to brain activity during CMI. An article with the results of the study was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Using a mobile brain and body imaging system, and monitoring gait kinematics and behavioral responses, the researchers observed the brain activity, gait, and behavior of 26 healthy people aged 18 to 30 years old while performing two tasks simultaneously: viewing a series of images, sitting in a chair or walking on a treadmill.

Participants had to press a button each time the image on the screen changed. But if the same image appeared twice in a row, they were asked not to press the button.

Solving tasks on the go can cause changes in brain activity and increase the efficiency of their performance 2
Illustration of the experimental plan for the suppression of the Go / NoGo response (press the button / do not press)

The performance (speed of decision making, number of errors, and so on) demonstrated by each participant while performing this task while sitting was considered their personal “baseline”. When continuous walking was added to the same task, the researchers found that subjects developed different behavior patterns.

In some people, the results were expectedly worse than in the initial sitting position, but more than half of the participants, on the contrary, improved the performance of cognitive tasks – the number of errors and the time spent on response decreased.

At the same time, all volunteers, regardless of the speed and accuracy of the answer, reduced the length of the step when solving cognitive tasks.

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Brain maps showing the average difference in neuronal activity (when performing a sitting task and while walking on a treadmill) for selected time points at which this difference turned out to be significant. Top row – average activity maps for participants who showed the best results when performing tasks on the go, bottom row – average maps of the rest of the study participants

In addition, electroencephalography (EEG) results showed that those 14 participants who improved on the walking task had changes in activity, mainly in the frontal lobe of the brain, which were not observed in 12 participants, whose results either did not change, or worsened. This change in neural activity in those who performed better on a task suggests increased brain flexibility.

Extending this study to older people could help scientists identify a possible marker that defines so-called super old people, or people with minimal age-related cognitive decline. This marker will help to better understand the processes occurring in the brain during aging and the development of neurodegenerative diseases.

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