UEL Baby Dev Lab

Applying gaze-contingent training within community settings to infants from diverse SES backgrounds

Ballieux, H., Wass, S., Tomalski, P., Kushnerenko, E., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Johnson, M., & Moore, D. 2016. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology

Even in infancy children from low-SES backgrounds differ in frontal cortex functioning and, by the start of pre-school, they frequently show poor performance on executive functions including attention control. These differences may causally mediate later difficulties in academic learning. Here, we present a study to assess the feasibility of using computerized paradigms to train attention control in infants, delivered weekly over five sessions in early intervention centres for low-SES families. Thirty-three 12-month-old infants were recruited, of whom 23 completed the training. Our results showed the feasibility of repeat-visit cognitive training within community settings. Training-related improvements were found, relative to active controls, on tasks assessing visual sustained attention, saccadic reaction time, and rule learning, whereas trend improvements were found on assessments of short-term memory. No significant improvements were found in task switching. These results warrant further investigation into the potential of this method for targeting ‘at-risk’ infants in community settings.

Elevated physiological arousal is associated with larger but more variable neural responses to small acoustic change in children during a passive auditory attention task

Wass, S., Daubney, K., Golan, J., Logan, F., & Kushnerenko, E. 2019. Developmental cognitive neuroscience

Little is known of how autonomic arousal relates to neural responsiveness during auditory attention. We presented N = 21 5-7-year-old children with an oddball auditory mismatch paradigm, whilst concurrently measuring heart rate fluctuations. Children with higher mean autonomic arousal, as indexed by higher heart rate (HR) and decreased high-frequency (0.15-0.8 Hz) variability in HR, showed smaller amplitude N250 responses to frequently presented (70%), 500 Hz standard tones. Follow-up analyses showed that the modal evoked response was in fact similar, but accompanied by more large and small amplitude responses and greater variability in peak latency in the high HR group, causing lower averaged responses. Similar patterns were also observed when examining heart rate fluctuations within a testing session, in an analysis that controlled for between-participant differences in mean HR. In addition, we observed larger P150/P3a amplitudes in response to small acoustic contrasts (750 Hz tones) in the high HR group. Responses to large acoustic contrasts (bursts of white noise), however, evoked strong early P3a phase in all children and did not differ by high/low HR. Our findings suggest that elevated physiological arousal may be associated with high variability in auditory ERP responses in young children, along with increased responsiveness to small acoustic changes.

Parental frontal brain activity tracks infants’ attention during shared play

Wass, S., Marriott-Haresign, I., Whitehorn, M., Clackson, K., Georgieva, S., Noreika, V., & Leong, V. 2020. PsyArXiv

Previous research has suggested that similar patterns of neural activity occur between watching someone else perform an action and performing it oneself. Here, we demonstrate a comparable phenomenon: that, while engaged in free-flowing naturalistic parent-child play, parents’ oscillatory activity recorded overfrontal areas co-varies with their infants’ attention patterns, independent of their own attention patterns. We also found weaker evidence for the opposite relationship: that infants’ brain activity tracks adults’ attention. We demonstratethis by recording dual EEG in 12-month-old infants and their parents while they were engaged in joint and solo tabletop play with toys, andanalysing the time-lagged temporal associations between infants’ attention towards play objects and adults’ neural activity, and vice versa. We discuss how these inter-dyadic brain-behaviour correspondences relate to actor-observer relationships previously been documented, and consider their role asdriversof inter-personal neural synchrony.

Bidirectional Mechanisms rather than Alternatives: The Role of Sustained Attention in Interactive Contexts Can Only Be Understood through Joint Attention

Phillips, E., Wass, S. 2021. Human Development

Although associations between joint attention and infant development have been extensively investigated (eg, Carpenter et al., 1998; Donnellan et al., 2020; Mundy & Newell, 2007), the question of how, exactly, interactive behaviours support infant learning remains widely debated (Abney et al., 2020; Tomasello et al., 2007). Hudspeth and Lewis (this issue, DOI 10.1159/000515681) suggest that measures of joint attention in early interaction with an adult partner might merely reflect the ability of the infant to sustain their attention. This theory places infant object engagement at the forefront of attention and learning in joint interaction, in contrast to more traditional views that emphasise infants’ engagement with the attentional behaviours of their adult partner (eg, Carpenter et al., 1998). First, we discuss Hudspeth and Lewis’s comments on methodological issues to do with defining sustained attention. Next, we consider an important point that they do not mention - namely, the inconsistencies in defining joint attention in the literature. We end by exploring endogenous and exogenous influences on sustained and concurrent looking in early interaction, as well as their implications for understanding infant learning.

Allostasis and metastasis: the yin and yang of childhood self-regulation

Wass, S. 2021. PsyArXiv

Most research has studied self-regulation by presenting experimenter-controlled test stimuliand measuring change between a baseline period and the stimulus. But in the real world weare not passive recipients of discrete chunks of external stimulation, to which we in turnrespond; rather, the real world is continuous and we self-regulate by adaptively selectingwhich aspects of the social environment that we attend to from one moment to the next. Here,we contrast two dynamic processes that guide this process – the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ of self-regulation. First, allostasis, through which we dynamically compensate for change tomaintain homeostasis. This involves upregulating in some situations and downregulating inothers. And second, metastasis, the dynamical principle underling dysregulation. Throughmetastasis, small initial fluctuations can become progressively amplified over time. Wecontrast these processes at the individual level (i.e. by examining moment-to-moment changein one child, considered independently) and also at the inter-personal level (i.e. by examiningchange across a dyad, such as a parent-child dyad). Finally, we discuss practical implicationsof this approach in improving the self-regulation of emotion and cognition, in typicaldevelopment and psychopathology.

The origins of effortful control: How early development within arousal/regulatory systems influences attentional and affective control

Wass, S. 2021. Academic Press

In this review, I consider the developmental interactions between two domains sometimes characterised as at opposite ends of the human spectrum: early-developing arousal/regulatory domains, that subserve basic mechanisms of survival and homeostasis; and the later-developing ‘higher-order’ cognitive domain of effortful control. First, I examine how short-term fluctuations within arousal/regulatory systems associate with fluctuations in effortful control during early childhood. I present evidence suggesting that both hyper- and hypo-arousal are associated with immediate reductions in attentional and affective control; but that hyper-aroused individuals can show cognitive strengths (faster learning speeds) as well as weaknesses (reduced attentional control). I also present evidence that, in infancy, both hyper- and hypo-aroused states may be dynamically amplified through interactions with the child’s social and physical environment. Second, I examine long-term interactions between arousal/regulatory systems and effortful control. I present evidence that atypical early arousal/regulatory development predicts poorer attentional and affective control during later development. And I consider moderating influences of the environment, such that elevated early arousal/regulatory system reactivity may confer both cognitive advantages in a supportive environment, and disadvantages in an unsupportive one. Finally, I discuss how future research can further our understanding of these close associations between attentional and affective domains during early development.

Proactive or reactive? Neural oscillatory insight into the leader-follower dynamics of early infant-caregiver interaction

Phillips, E., Goupil, L., Marriott-Haresign, I., Bruce-Gardyne, E., Csolsim, F. A., Whitehorn, M., Leong, M., Wass., S. 2021. PsyArXiv

We know that infants’ ability to coordinate attention with others towards the end of the first year is fundamental to language acquisition and social cognition (Carpenter et al., 1998). Yet, we understand little about the neural and cognitive mechanisms driving infant attention in shared interaction: do infants play a proactive role in creating episodes of joint attention? Recording EEG from 12-month-old infants whilst they engaged in table-top play with their caregiver, we examined the ostensive signals and neural activity preceding and following infant-vs. adult-led joint attention. Contrary to traditional theories of socio-communicative development (Tomasello et al., 2007), infant-led joint attention episodes appeared largely reactive: they were not associated with increased theta power, a neural marker of endogenously driven attention, or ostensive signals before the initiation. Infants were, however, sensitive to whether their initiations were responded to. When caregivers joined their attentional focus, infants showed increased alpha suppression, a pattern of neural activity associated with predictive processing. Our results suggest that at 10-12 months, infants are not yet proactive in creating joint attention. They do, however, anticipate behavioural contingency, a potentially foundational mechanism for the emergence of intentional communication (Smith & Breazeal, 2007).