Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory

Brown University







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Attention and Memory across Development

     Navigating the world and learning from our experiences requires the ability to both selectively attend to relevant information and encode that information into memory. Most of us intuitively understand that paying attention will help us form robust memories. However, recent research has just begun to identify specific mechanisms underlying attention and memory interactions. For example, this work has shown that stored memories generate expectations that guide allocation of attention to behaviorally-relevant information.
     Conversely, selective attention promotes learning and memory by guiding sampling of visual information and allowing for effective encoding and retrieval of relevant information. Despite the centrality of these processes during development, many studies of cognitive development in infancy, middle childhood, and adolescence have predominantly approached memory and attention as independent systems. We instead assert that memory and attention are deeply intertwined throughout development, such that changes in each system will have implications for the other. In this work, we highlight attention/memory interactions in development by demonstrating the role of inhibitory selective attention mechanisms in promoting encoding and subsequent recognition memory among children and adolescents.

Role of Experience in Frontal Cortex Development

     An important factor in human cognitive development is the emergence of rule-guided or contingent action selection. This ability depends on cognitive control function and permits appropriate actions to be selected based on goals, plans, or a particular context. For example, consider the rule often given to children: when indoors, it is appropriate to speak in a soft voice (“indoor voice”), whereas outside, it is more permissible to shout. Here, a contextual representation (i.e., indoor or outdoor) modulates how one should speak. Rules can be made more abstract to the extent that they relate contexts to entire classes of simpler rules (i.e., “the indoor/outdoor voice” rules only apply when mom is within earshot). Rule abstraction of this type underlies learning and generalization , planning, decision making, and fluid reasoning. Thus, successfully developing this ability is important for flexible function, especially as children become increasingly self-directed and less dependent on caregivers.

     While simple rule following emerges as early as 2 years, the development of abstract rule use extends into adolescence. This protracted developmental course means that maturation of abstract, relative to concrete, rule-guided behavior may be dependent on slow experience-dependent learning, and be especially vulnerable to factors deriving from socioeconomic status (SES). Differences in the availability of items, interactions, and experiences in middle/high versus low SES families may affect experience-based changes in cognitive control. Across our aims, we propose to investigate the development of rule-guided action at different levels of abstraction, its relationship to brain structure and function, and its dependence on environmental experiences.

Visual Attention in Autism Spectrum Disorder

     This project will examine the typical development of visual attention (VA) and the mechanisms of its disruption in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). VA supports the selection of salient stimuli, and the suppression of interfering stimuli, from a cluttered visual world. It serves as an information filter, determining which items are selected for learning and memory. VA emerges in the third postnatal month and continues to refine into adolescence. At its emergence, it is bottom-up, or driven by external stimuli. Over time, internal goals and demands contribute to attentional selection. Little is known about the variables that organize the early development of typical VA and how their disruption may alter one’s developmental course in children diagnosed with ASDs. This work addresses this question using both computerized displays as well as mobile eye tracking technology and naturalistic interact