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J Neurophysiol. 2010 Apr;103(4):1954-62. doi: 10.1152/jn.00832.2009. Epub 2010 Feb 10.

Thinking about walking: effects of conscious correction versus distraction on locomotor adaptation.

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Department of Biomedical Engineering, The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, USA.


Control of the human walking pattern normally requires little thought, with conscious control used only in the face of a challenging environment or a perturbation. We have previously shown that people can adapt spatial and temporal aspects of walking to a sustained perturbation generated by a split-belt treadmill. Here we tested whether conscious correction of walking, versus distraction from it, modifies adaptation. Conscious correction of stepping may expedite the adaptive process and help to form a new walking pattern. However, because walking is normally an automatic process, it is possible that conscious effort could interfere with adaptation, whereas distraction might improve it by removing competing voluntary control. Three groups of subjects were studied: a control group was given no specific instructions, a conscious correction group was instructed how to step and given intermittent visual feedback of stepping during adaptation, and a distraction group performed a dual-task during adaptation. After adaptation, retention of aftereffects was assessed in all groups during normal treadmill walking without conscious effort, feedback, or distraction. We found that conscious correction speeds adaptation, whereas distraction slows it. Subjects trained with distraction retained aftereffects longest, suggesting that the training used during adaptation predicts the time course of deadaptation. An unexpected finding was that these manipulations affected the adaptation rate of spatial but not temporal elements of walking. Thus conscious processes can preferentially access the spatial walking pattern. It may be that spatial and temporal controls of locomotion are accessible through distinct neural circuits, with the former being most sensitive to conscious effort or distraction.

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