Funded Grants

Stay Cool: The development of self-regulation in mind, brain and body

Self-regulation allows us to manage thoughts and feelings through balancing personal goals with constraints of the social and physical environment, and forms the foundation of cooperation in human societies. Self-regulation emerges in early childhood, predicts long-term wellbeing, security and success, and can support resilience to genetic and environmental risks. However, we still understand very little about the brain and cognitive processes that underpin the emergence of self-regulatory behaviors in this critical window. A traditional approach is to define cognitive constructs (like inhibition, working memory or shifting) that are assumed to underlie self-regulation and can be assessed with simplified lab-based tasks during which behavior or brain function is averaged within one or two conditions. However, individual differences in traditional lab-based tasks do not strongly associate with the parent-report measures of self-regulation that are predictive of long-term outcomes. There are many contributing factors: i) the need for self-regulation is most potent when the child’s goals clash with the environment, and strong goals are hard to induce artificially; ii) Typical laboratory tasks only tap the capacity for regulation, not the tendency to apply self-regulation skills; iii) individual differences in reactivity mean that the need to self-regulate within standardised tasks will vary across children.

To change this picture, we contend that we need to study self-regulation in naturalistic social and physical settings in which we can measure the frequency, depth and duration of self-regulation states, and with measurement and analytic techniques that allow us to separate self-regulation from reactivity. Our work is underpinned by the hypothesis that self-regulation emerges from later-maturing brain networks (including frontal cortex) that specialise independently from the sensory processing circuits that drive reactivity. To do this, we will recreate a preschool environment in our Toddler Cave augmented visual environment (CAVE); this world-unique facility allows us to collect high-quality experimental data in naturalistic but systematically manipulable settings. By continuous and integrated measurement of brain activity, motion, visual attention and behavior we will define embodied states of self-regulation and measure their duration, strength and frequency. To dissect reactivity and regulation, we will use advanced spatiotemporal analyses of brain and behavior to separate the activation of distinct brain networks.

We will study 3- to 7-year-old children (a critical age for the consolidation of self-regulation) enriched for variation in self-regulation skills by including those with a family history of ADHD. Multimodal data is captured while children engage in a set of play activities designed to resemble a typical day at preschool, with natural variation in their self-regulatory demands (including interactions with toddler avatars on the CAVE walls). Across three Aims, we will: 1) identify the brain states that underpin self-regulation; 2) Test whether the brain states underpinning self-regulation directly modulate sensory reactivity and are scaffolded by parental sensitivity; 3) test whether the frequency and depth of self-regulation brain-states increase with age and relate to behavioral individual differences. Together, this work will test a new conceptualisation of self-regulation at the brain-mind-body interface in early childhood.