Cognitive Loading Affects Motor Awareness and Movement Kinematics but Not Locomotor Trajectories during Goal-Directed Walking in a Virtual Reality Environment
The primary purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of cognitive loading on movement kinematics and trajectory formation during goal-directed walking in a virtual reality (VR) environment. The secondary objective was to measure how participants corrected their trajectories for perturbed feedback and how participants' awareness of such perturbations changed under cognitive loading. We asked 14 healthy young adults to walk towards four different target locations in a VR environment while their movements were tracked and played back in real-time on a large projection screen. In 75% of all trials we introduced angular deviations of +/- 5 degrees to +/- 30 degrees between the veridical walking trajectory and the visual feedback. Participants performed a second experimental block under cognitive load (serial-7 subtraction, counterbalanced across participants). We measured walking kinematics (joint-angles, velocity profiles) and motor performance (end-point-compensation, trajectory-deviations). Motor awareness was determined by asking participants to rate the veracity of the feedback after every trial. In-line with previous findings in natural settings, participants displayed stereotypical walking trajectories in a VR environment. Our results extend these findings as they demonstrate that taxing cognitive resources did not affect trajectory formation and deviations although it interfered with the participants' movement kinematics, in particular walking velocity. Additionally, we report that motor awareness was selectively impaired by the secondary task in trials with high perceptual uncertainty. Compared with data on eye and arm movements our findings lend support to the hypothesis that the central nervous system (CNS) uses common mechanisms to govern goal-directed movements, including locomotion. We discuss our results with respect to the use of VR methods in gait control and rehabilitation.