Prefrontal cortex activation during obstacle negotiation: What's the effect size and timing?

Inbal Maidan*, Shiran Shustak, Topaz Sharon, Hagar Bernad-Elazari, Nimrod Geffen, Nir Giladi, Jeffrey M. Hausdorff, Anat Mirelman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Obstacle negotiation is a daily activity that requires the integration of sensorimotor and cognitive information. Recent studies provide evidence for the important role of prefrontal cortex during obstacle negotiation. We aimed to explore the effects of obstacle height and available response time on prefrontal activation. Methods: Twenty healthy young adults (age: 30.1 ± 1.0 years; 50% women) walked in an obstacle course while negotiating anticipated and unanticipated obstacles at heights of 50 mm and 100 mm. Prefrontal activation was measured using a functional near-infrared spectroscopy system. Kinect cameras measured the obstacle negotiation strategy. Prefrontal activation was defined based on mean level of HbO2 before, during and after obstacle negotiation and the HbO2 slope from gait initiation and throughout the task. Changes between types of obstacles were assessed using linear-mix models and partial correlation analyses evaluated the relationship between prefrontal activation and the distance between the feet as the subjects traversed the obstacles. Results: Different obstacle heights showed similar changes in prefrontal activation measures (p > 0.210). However, during unanticipated obstacles, the slope of the HbO2 response was steeper (p = 0.048), as compared to anticipated obstacles. These changes in prefrontal activation during negotiation of unanticipated obstacles were correlated with greater distance of the leading foot after the obstacles (r = 0.831, p = 0.041). Conclusions: These findings are the first to show that the pattern of prefrontal activation depends on the nature of the obstacle. More specifically, during unanticipated obstacles the recruitment of the prefrontal cortex is faster and greater than during negotiating anticipated obstacles. These results provide evidence of the important role of the prefrontal cortex and the ability of healthy young adults to tailor the activation pattern to different types of obstacles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-51
Number of pages7
JournalBrain and Cognition
StatePublished - Apr 2018


  • Available response time
  • Gait
  • Motor planning
  • Obstacle negotiation
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • fNIRS


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