UEL Baby Dev Lab

A psychophysiological investigation of the interplay between orienting and executive control during stimulus conflict: A heart rate variability study.

Sørensen, L., Wass, S., Osnes, B., Schanche, E., Adolfsdottir, S., Svendsen, J. L., ... & Sonuga-Barke, E. 2019. Physiology & Behaviour

Background: It has been hypothesized that resting state cardiac vagal activity (CVA) - an indicator of parasympathetic nervous system activity - is a specific psychophysiological marker of executive control function.
Here, we propose an alternative hypothesis - that CVA is associated with early stage attention orientation,
promoting the flexible uptake of new information, on which the later operation of such executive control
functions depends. We therefore predicted that CVA would predict the interaction between orienting and executive control. This was tested using the revised version of the Attention Network Test (ANT-R) that was
developed to distinguish between orienting and executive attention during a stimulus conflict task.
Methods: Healthy adults (N = 48) performed the ANT-R and their resting CVA was measured over a 5 min period
using ECG recordings.
Results: Multiple regression analyses indicated that, when other factors were controlled for, CVA was more
strongly associated with the interaction between the orienting and executive control terms than with either
factor individually.
Conclusion: Higher levels of CVA are specifically implicated in the modulation of executive control by intrinsic
orientation operating at early stages of conflict detection. These initial findings of higher CVA on orienting
attention in conflict detection need to be replicated in larger samples.

How the development of executive function influences our moment-by-moment interactions with the real-world environment

Wass, S. 2021. PsyArXiv

Historically, the study of executive function (EF) development has relied on using experimental paradigms to assess EFs as abstract, time-invariant properties of individual brains. Here, we discuss new research that moves away from studying EFs purely as internal mental constructs, towards an approach that aims to understand how EFs are expressed through the inter-relationship between an individual’s brain and the world around them. We offer three illustrative examples of this approach. The first looks at how we learn to make predictions and anticipations based on different types of regularity in our early social and physical environment. The second looks at how we learn to correct, moment-by-moment, for changes in the outside world to maintain stability in the face of change. The third looks at how we allocate our attention on a moment-by-moment basis, in naturalistic settings. We discuss potential new therapeutic avenues for improving EFs arising from this research.