UEL Baby Dev Lab

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.

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.