Cognitive processes are required during walking to appropriately respond to environmental and task demands. There are now many studies that have used functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) to record brain activation to investigate neural bases of cognitive contributions in gait. The aim of this systematic review was to summarize the published research regarding Prefrontal cortical (PFC) activation patterns during simple and complex walking tasks in young adults, older adults and clinical groups with balance disorders using fNIRS. Our secondary aim was to evaluate each included study based on methodological reporting criteria important for good data quality.
We conducted searches in June 2018 using four databases: Embase, PubMed, Scopus and PsycINFO. The strategy search used was: (((((near infrared spectroscopy) OR functional near infrared spectroscopy) OR nirs) OR fnirs) AND (((gait) OR walking) OR locomotion) AND (((((young) OR adult) OR older) OR elderly) NOT children)) AND (((Brain) OR cortex) OR cortical) for our search. The papers included met the specific review criteria: (i) used fNIRS to measure PFC activation patterns; (ii) included walking tasks (simple and complex) and; (iii) assessed young people, older people and/or clinical groups with balance disorders.
Thirty five (describing 75 brain activation comparisons) of the 308 studies retrieved through our search met the inclusion criteria. Based on 6 methodological reporting considerations, 20 were of high quality, 10 were of medium quality and 5 were of low quality. Eleven/20 comparisons in young people, 23/37 comparisons in older people and 15/18 comparisons in clinical groups reported increased PFC activation with increased walking task complexity. The majority of comparisons that used verbal fluency, counting backwards or secondary motor tasks reported increases in PFC activation (83%, 64% and 58% of these studies, respectively). In contrast, no studies found secondary visual tasks increased PFC activation.
Increased PFC activation was most common in studies that involved walks comprising secondary verbal fluency and arithmetic tasks. Clinical groups generally showed increased PFC activation irrespective of type of secondary task performed during walking which suggests these groups require more attentional resources for safe walking. Systematic review registration number: PROSPERO 2017 - CRD42017059501.