In order to clarify the cortical mechanism underlying gait initiation, we examined the scalp distribution of the contingent negative variation (CNV) preceding externally cued gait initiation in a simple reaction-time paradigm in 10 healthy right-handed men, and compared the results with the CNV preceding simple foot dorsiflexion. A pair of auditory stimuli was given with an interstimulus (S1-S2) interval of 2 s and gait consisting of at least 3 steps was initiated with the right footstep as fast as possible in response to S2. Brisk dorsiflexion of the right foot was employed as a control task. It was found that the late CNV in the gait initiation task started about 1 s before S2, and was largest at Cz (-9.3 +/- 3.1 microV) without clear asymmetry over the scalp. However, it was ill defined in the parietal area. In the foot dorsiflexion task, the late CNV was maximal at Cz (-7.1 +/- 2.9 microV), and clearly seen also over the parietal area. The late CNV at Cz was significantly (P < 0.01) larger in the gait initiation than in the simple foot dorsiflexion. The amplitude of the late CNV preceding the foot dorsiflexion task was not significantly different between the sitting and the standing posture. In view of the results of previous invasive studies in both humans and animals which showed some frontal areas, including the supplementary motor area (SMA) and the primary motor cortex, as the generators of the late CNV, it is suggested that the cerebral cortex is active in initiation of externally triggered gait in a different way from the simple foot movement, and that bilateral SMAs may play a more important role in gait initiation than in simple foot movement.