Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 150, Issue 3, pp 385–394 | Cite as

The allocation of attention during locomotion is altered by anxiety

  • William H. Gage
  • Ryan J. Sleik
  • Melody A. Polych
  • Nicole C. McKenzie
  • Lesley A. Brown
Research Article


We tested the hypotheses that: (1) anxiety regarding the possibility of falling alters the attentional demands of gait; and (2) this alteration in the attentional requirements of gait occurs independently of gait pattern accommodations. Sixteen younger and 15 older adults participated in this study. Subjects walked at a self-determined velocity along a 7.2-m walkway under four conditions of postural threat; the walking conditions varied depending on the width constraints of the walkway (60 cm vs 15 cm) and the height of the walking surface (0 cm vs 60 cm). Attentional demands of locomotion in each condition of testing were assessed using the dual-task methodology, in which participants verbally responded to an auditory cue as quickly as possible while continuing to walk. Our findings revealed that: (1) participants were successful in verbally responding to the auditory cue without modifying their gait pattern; (2) reaction times increased for all subjects when walking in the condition of greatest postural threat; (3) the attentional demands for locomotion varied with the phase of the gait cycle for younger adults but not for older adults; (4) the phase-dependent effect for younger adults disappeared in the condition of greatest postural threat, while reaction time scores for older adults systematically increased; and (5) increases in reaction time persisted despite significant changes in gait kinematics. Our findings confirm that anxiety increases the attentional demands for locomotion and provide further explanation for age-dependent increases in the attentional demands of gait. Furthermore, our findings confirm that fall-related anxiety predicates an increase in the allocation of attention to locomotor control that is independent of gait pattern adjustments.


Attention Anxiety Locomotion Fear of falling Aging 



The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of: Dr. Toni Winder for the neurological screening of our elderly participants; Kendra Massie and Mitchell Champney for assistance on data collections; as well as Greg Tompkins and Frank Klassen for equipment construction and hardware technical assistance. This research is supported by grants from the MSI foundation (grant no. 739) and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research to L. Brown and NSERC to W. Gage.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • William H. Gage
    • 2
  • Ryan J. Sleik
    • 1
  • Melody A. Polych
    • 1
  • Nicole C. McKenzie
    • 1
  • Lesley A. Brown
    • 1
  1. 1.Balance Research Laboratory, Department of KinesiologyUniversity of LethbridgeLethbridge ABCanada
  2. 2.Gait & Posture Laboratory, Department of KinesiologyUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada

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