Cognitive load reduces the effects of optic flow on gait and electrocortical dynamics during treadmill walking

Brenda R. Malcolm, John J. Foxe, John S. Butler, Sophie Molholm, Pierfilippo De Sanctis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


During navigation of complex environments, the brain must continuously adapt to both external demands, such as fluctuating sensory inputs, and internal demands, such as engagement in a cognitively demanding task. Previous studies have demonstrated changes in behavior and gait with increased sensory and cognitive load, but the underlying cortical mechanisms remain largely unknown. In the present study, in a mobile brain/body imaging (MoBI) approach, 16 young adults walked on a treadmill with high-density EEG while 3-dimensional (3D) motion capture tracked kinematics of the head and feet. Visual load was manipulated with the presentation of optic flow with and without continuous mediolateral perturbations. The effects of cognitive load were assessed by the performance of a go/no-go task on half of the blocks. During increased sensory load, participants walked with shorter and wider strides, which may indicate a more restrained pattern of gait. Interestingly, cognitive task engagement attenuated these effects of sensory load on gait. Using an independent component analysis and dipole-fitting approach, we found that cautious gait was accompanied by neuro-oscillatory modulations localized to frontal (supplementary motor area, anterior cingulate cortex) and parietal (inferior parietal lobule, precuneus) areas. Our results show suppression in alpha/mu (8 –12 Hz) and beta (13–30 Hz) rhythms, suggesting enhanced activation of these regions with unreliable sensory inputs. These findings provide insight into the neural correlates of gait adaptation and may be particularly relevant to older adults who are less able to adjust to ongoing cognitive and sensory demands while walking. NEW & NOTEWORTHY The neural underpinnings of gait adaptation in humans are poorly understood. To this end, we recorded high-density EEG combined with three-dimensional body motion tracking as participants walked on a treadmill while exposed to full-field optic flow stimulation. Perturbed visual input led to a more cautious gait pattern with neuro-oscillatory modulations localized to premotor and parietal regions. Our findings show a possible brain-behavior link that might further our understanding of gait and mobility impairments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2246-2259
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Dual-task design
  • EEG
  • Independent component analysis (ICA)
  • Mobile brain/body imaging (MoBI)
  • Power spectral density

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Physiology


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