Executive functions from infancy into early childhood: Measuring robust cognitive and neural markers of development and risk

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Experimental Psychology

Abstract

This research aims to understand more about how executive functions develop in very early childhood, between approximately 9 months and 2.5 years of age. Executive functions refer to a set of skills and abilities that allow us to solve problems, plan and organise our lives, make decisions, and cope when we have to do many different things at the same time. Some of these abilities involve keeping important things in memory while solving a problem - for example doing mental arithmetic or reading a set of instructions. Other executive functions help us stop habits and overcome temptations when these are not good for us. In a way, executive functions allow us to have some control over our lives, instead of being completely ruled by habits and circumstances.

Because executive functions are so important for being able to live a successful life, it is not surprising that children who have problems with executive functions also tend to struggle in other important areas, such as in school and in social situations. Children who have a diagnosis of developmental disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), also often have poorer executive functions.

Unsurprisingly, young children's executive functions are far from perfect - they struggle to keep things in memory, to plan for themselves, and to resist temptation. Children improve very fast in these skills between 3 and 5 years of age and continue to improve right up until adulthood. However, we know very little about how children get their very first executive function abilities during the first 2 years of life. Of course their skills at this young age are likely to be limited, but research suggests that they are in fact present. One problem, though, is that it is quite difficult to measure executive functions in babies and toddlers. We cannot do this the usual way because very young children are limited in their motor and language skills - we cannot simply tell them what to do. Nevertheless, we can develop alternative ways of measuring these skills. For example, developmental psychologists often look at what babies prefer to look at in specially designed videos and get toddlers to play specially programmed games on a computer in order to figure out how young children understand and act on the world around them. In the present research, such videos and interactive games (called 'tasks') will be used to extract measures of even these very young children's executive function abilities.

The present research aims to design more and better measures of executive functions in babies and toddlers. The tasks used to measure executive functions will be designed so they are as similar as possible for different age groups, but also get harder as children grow older. I will also use measures of brain activity to see how the brain develops alongside children's executive functions. Once I know that the tasks work well and measure what they are supposed to measure, I will study a large group of approximately 200 children from 9 months until 2.5 years of age. Because the same children will be followed as they grow older, I will be able to see if some children start to develop problems with executive functions and at what point in time this happens. This is important because if we know what the signs are that some children are developing problems, then we can start working on finding ways of helping these children. When children develop specific disorders, such as ADHD and ASD, they are often not diagnosed before they are 3-5 years old. With this new research we may one day be able to diagnose and help these children at an earlier point.

Technical Summary

Executive functions (EFs) are a set of cognitive abilities that allow us to guide our behaviour and make adaptive decisions. They provide us with the ability to control our thoughts and actions, solve problems, and multi-task. Without EFs we would be largely controlled by immediate circumstances and habitual responses.

EFs are particularly challenged in young children, who struggle to maintain and manipulate information in working memory, inhibit strong response tendencies and shift between different perspectives and actions. They are also compromised in children with developmental disorders and those with academic and social difficulties. Between 3 and 5 years of age EF skills improve rapidly. However, little is known about EFs before this age. This is due to the lack of psychometrically adequate EF tasks for this age group.

With this proposal, I aim to push down the boundary for successful EF assessment by designing a new task battery specifically for 9- to 30-month-old children. Tasks will be structurally similar across age, ensuring that they measure the same construct at different time points. Once tasks have been psychometrically validated, I plan to undertake a longitudinal study of 200 children. Children will be assessed on the new battery along with concurrent measures of brain activity. This will provide important knowledge on the very earliest development of EFs, the biological substrate of this development, and individual trajectories. Outcomes in terms of behaviour problems and early signs of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder will be assessed so that potentially problematic EF trajectories can be identified earlier than presently possible. This is an important step towards improved diagnosis and intervention for children at risk of poor EFs and associated developmental disorders. The task battery will be made available to other researchers and clinicians, providing a new tool for others to use in an area where none currently exists.

Planned Impact

The most immediate beneficiaries of the research will be researchers interested in executive functions. Researchers in related fields are also likely to find the research of interest and use. Academic beneficiaries will benefit from the research in terms of increased knowledge and new tools as soon as the first results are disseminated. These impacts are likely to be realised within a few years of the initiation of the research.

Staff working on the project will benefit in terms of training and development of high-level research and technical skills.

In the longer term, when the new EF task battery has been fully developed and validated, clinicians and educationalists will also benefit. They will have a new measurement instrument available to help them assess EFs earlier than previously possible. EFs are impaired in many neurodevelopmental disorders. For this reason, making the task battery and its associated research knowledge base available to practitioners has clear impacts in terms of enhancing the quality of life and improving mental health in children. It will provide an additional diagnostic tool that can help detect developmental problems earlier during childhood, paving the way for early intervention and support for these children. The task battery may also be used directly in intervention research as a marker of improvement in EFs and associated abilities as an outcome of specific interventions. The time-scale for these clinical and educational benefits is longer because the task battery cannot be made publically available as a standardised tool before it has been fully validated and all the key results published. I expect this to take approximately 5 years in terms of clinical use, and longer in terms of using the battery for intervention research (the latter will require an additional programme of 3-4 years' research upon the completion of battery development and validation).

In a wider perspective, increasing knowledge about the earliest development of EFs, and providing a new tool for their assessment, may in the long term have important policy and societal implications, especially when the battery is eventually used for intervention and intervention research with children who have or are at risk of developmental disorders. Research on EF interventions in pre-schoolers has shown that it is possible to roll out highly beneficial, but nevertheless simple and cost-effective, programmes of EF training in children at risk (Diamond et al., 2007). A particular strength of the proposed research is that it may eventually allow such intervention or educational programmes at an earlier age before problems are too severe, thus leading to better and more lasting benefits for children at risk.

Finally, I believe that the research will be of interest to the general public. Although a general audience my not know the term 'executive functions' most people will have a tacit understanding of the concepts involved (such as the ability to plan and organise one's life, multi-task, and keep things in memory while doing something else) and may find it interesting to learn about how these abilities develop. Furthermore, as detailed in the Case for Support, one the main aims of the research is being able to detect developmental problems and help children with such problems at the earliest possible point. Developmental disorders are common, affecting about 1 in 6 children (Boyle et al., 2011), meaning that this is something that affects many families in the UK and abroad. The benefits described above for clinicians, educationalists and policy-makers will also apply to these families once the research has been brought to its full potential.

References:

Boyle, C. A. et al. Trends in the prevalence of developmental disabilities in US children, 1997-2008. Pediatrics 127, 1034-1042 (2011).
Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J. & Munro, S. Preschool program improves cognitive control. Science 318, 1387-1388 (2007).

Publications

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Title New battery to assess executive functions in infancy in toddlerhood - iPad app and eye-tracking software 
Description Henrik Dvergsdal at Nord University has developed the software used for some of my new executive function tasks. This includes eye-tracking software as well as an iPad app. These tools are not shared publicly yet, but several of our collaborators are using them for ongoing studies 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact A paper based on the first data collected with the iPad app is in preparation. Two external collaborators are currently using the iPad app for separate data collection. 
 
Description Collaboration with Dr. Janna Gottwald 
Organisation Uppsala University
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I collaborate with Dr. Gottwald on a project investigating early inhibitory control development. She will be using one of the tasks I have developed in her longitudinal study, and in the future we plan to run analyses on our pooled data sets.
Collaborator Contribution Dr. Gottwald is leading her own study.
Impact There are not outputs yet. The collaboration is not multi-disciplinary.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Collaboration with Henrik Dvergsdal at Nord University, Norway 
Organisation Nord University
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution My team is responsible for the design of the overall study protocol, including task design and piloting. We carry out all participant recruitment, testing and video coding.
Collaborator Contribution The project involves a collaboration with computer scientist Henrik Dvergsdal from Nord University. Henrik is extensively involved in programming novel tasks for the project, as well as integration of several data streams (eye-tracker, EEG system, high-speed camera). Henrik has a high level of technical, programming and engineering skills. In addition to this, he has a keen interest in usability and user interfaces and is contributing to the project not only in terms of programming, but also in terms of critical evaluation of task design and what is technically possible and optimal.
Impact A complete data set has been collected using one of the tasks that Henrik has programmed. An article reporting on this data is in preparation.
Start Year 2016
 
Description Collaboration with Prof. Karin Brocki, University of Uppsala, Sweden 
Organisation Uppsala University
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I am a named collaborator one Prof. Brocki's grant. She will be using some of the tasks I have developed in her longitudinal study.
Collaborator Contribution Prof. Brocki is leading the work.
Impact There are no outputs yet. The collaboration is not multi-disciplinary.
Start Year 2019
 
Title App for running infant and toddler EF tasks (iPad based testing) 
Description The app is still in development, but will eventually be made available to other researchers. The app includes a set of behavioural tasks to assess executive functions and related skills in infants and toddlers. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact The app is being used in current testing. The first paper based on data collected with the app is in preparation. 
 
Title Visual tasks app 
Description This software has been developed for presentation of visual stimuli in studies with infants and young children. It also controls a Tobii eye-tracker and synchronises several data streams. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact None yet. The code for the software will eventually be made available to other researchers. 
 
Description Curiosity Carnival (Oxford-wide public engagement event) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Curiosity Carnival was a major public engagement event that took place in Oxford on 29th September 2017. At the event, we ran a street stall where we explained our research to members of the general public. People could also participate in real experiments / data collection at the event. This was a huge success - children aged 5-12 were particularly keen to take part in experiments (with full parental consent) - there was a queue to take part, and we were talking to the public and running experiments non-stop from 12 noon to 7pm. It was great experience for all!
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.ox.ac.uk/curiosity-carnival
 
Description Super Science Saturdays at the Oxford University Natural History Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact My team participated in Super Science Saturdays and similar events several times in 2017. This involved running a stall where we explained our research to members of the general public. People could also participate in real experiments / data collection at the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017