UEL Baby Dev Lab

Understanding short-term interactions between arousal and attention in infants and children: applying the Aston-Jones framework

Wass, S. V. 2017. bioRxiv

Differential Susceptibility Theory explains long-term associations between neurobiological sensitivity and cognitive outcomes, but no comparable theoretical framework exists to understand how neurobiological sensitivity and cognitive performance inter-relate on shorter time-frames. Here, we evaluate a framework proposed by Aston-Jones and colleagues, building on the Yerkes-Dodson model, to understand these associations. The framework describes how slow-moving (tonic) changes in autonomic arousal relate to fast (phasic) changes, as observed for example relative to experimenter-determined events, and how phasic changes relate to attention. Larger phasic changes, which associate with better selective attention, are most likely at mid-level tonic arousal. Smaller phasic changes, and worse selective attention, are observed at hypo- and hyper-arousal. We review the fit of this model to typical and atypical development, during infancy and childhood.

Learning and the autonomic nervous system: understanding interactions between stress, concentration and learning during early childhood.

Wass, S., De Barbaro, K., & Clackson, K. 2016. Frontiers in Neuroscience

Predominant accounts explaining links between early looking behavior and later cognitive outcomes emphasize static individual differences in information encoding; however, work from Aston-Jones and colleagues suggests that looking behavior may be dynamically influenced by ongoing, phasic changes in autonomic arousal. To test the Aston-Jones model, a 20-minute testing battery constituting mixed photos and cartoon clips was shown to 53 typical 12-month-olds. Look duration was recorded to index attention, and continuous changes in arousal were tracked by measuring heart rate, electro-dermal activity and movement levels. Across three analyses we found that continuous changes in arousal tracked simultaneous changes in attention measures, as predicted by the Aston Jones model. We also found that changes in arousal tended to precede (occur before) subsequent changes in attention.

In a second study, we investigated causal interactions between attention and arousal by applying, over a 2-week training period, targeted cognitive training to a cohort of 12-month-old infants, aimed at strengthening the voluntary control of visual attention. Before and after training, and relative to an active control group, infants’ attentional control capacity and autonomic arousal were measured. Training was found to lead to marked changes in infants’ behaviour, across a number of different tasks, but infants’ autonomic arousal was unchanged following training. Changes in autonomic arousal remained as predictive of looking behaviour after training, as before. This suggests that arousal and voluntary attention control have separable influences on looking behaviour in infants.

In a third study we examined whether infants with more labile (sensitive) autonomic arousal patterns showed better, or worse, performance on learning tasks. Previous research has suggested that acute stress attenuates frontal lobe functioning and increases distractibility while enhancing subcortical processes in both human and nonhuman animals (Arnsten, 1998, Arnsten et al., 1998, Skosnik, 1999). To date however these relations have not been examined for their potential effects in developing populations. We examined the relationship between stress reactivity (infants’ heart rate response to watching videos of another child crying) and infant performance on measures of looking duration and visual recognition memory. Our findings indicate that infants with increased stress reactivity showed shorter look durations and more novelty preference. Thus, stress appears to lead to a faster, more stimulus-ready attentional profile in infants. Additional work is required to assess potential negative consequences of stimulus-responsivity, such as decreased focus or distractibility

Temporal dynamics of arousal and attention in 12‐month‐old infants.

Wass, S. V., Clackson, K., & De Barbaro, K. 2016. Developmental Psychobiology

Research from the animal literature suggests that dynamic, ongoing changes in arousal lead to dynamic changes in an individual's state of anticipatory readiness, influencing how individuals distribute their attention to the environment. However, multiple peripheral indices exist for studying arousal in humans, each showing change on different temporal scales, challenging whether arousal is best characterized as a unitary or a heterogeneous construct. Here, in 53 typical 12‐month‐olds, we recorded heart rate (HR), head movement patterns, electrodermal activity (EDA), and attention (indexed via look duration) during the presentation of 20 min of mixed animations and TV clips. We also examined triggers for high arousal episodes. Using cross‐correlations and auto‐correlations, we found that HR and head movement show strong covariance on a sub‐minute scale, with changes in head movement consistently preceding changes in HR. EDA showed significant covariance with both, but on much larger time‐scales. HR and head movement showed consistent relationships with look duration, but the relationship is temporally specific: relations are observed between head movement, HR and look duration at 30 s time‐lag, but not at larger time intervals. No comparable relationships were found for EDA. Changes in head movement and HR occurred before changes in look duration, but not for EDA. Our results suggest that consistent patterns of covariation between heart rate, head movement and EDA can be identified, albeit on different time‐scales, and that associations with look duration are present for head movement and heart rate, but not for EDA. Our results suggests that there is a single construct of arousal that can identified across multiple measures, and that phasic changes in arousal precede phasic changes in look duration. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychobiol 58: 623–639, 2016.

How orchids concentrate? The relationship between physiological stress reactivity and cognitive performance during infancy and early childhood

Wass, S. 2018. Pergamon

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is involved both in higher-order cognition such as attention and learning, and in responding to unexpected, threatening events. Increased ANS reactivity may confer both superior short-term cognitive performance, and heightened long-term susceptibility to adverse events. Here, we evaluate this hypothesis within the Differential Susceptibility Theory (DST) framework. We hypothesise that individuals with increased reactivity may show heightened biological sensitivity to context, conferring both positive (development-enhancing) effects (superior attention and learning) and negative (risk-promoting) effects (increased sensitivity to unsupportive environments). First, we examine how ANS reactivity relates to early cognitive performance. We hypothesise that increased phasic ANS reactivity, observed at lower tonic (pre-stimulus) ANS activity, is associated with better attention and learning. We conclude that the evidence is largely in support. Second we discuss whether ANS reactivity to ‘positive’, attention-eliciting and to ‘negative’, aversive stimuli is a one-dimensional construct; and evaluate evidence for how the real-world environment influences physiological stress over short and long time-frames. We identify three areas where the evidence is currently inconclusive.