Attention, Self-Regulation, and Psychopathology
in Children and Young Adolescents (ANSRS)

Funding period: July 1, 2008–June 30, 2013
Principal Investigator: Dr. Kristina Racer
Funded by: National Institutes of Health

The ANSRS project is part of a program of research that seeks to identify barriers to self-regulation and develop methods to tailor intervention and prevention to individual self-regulatory strengths and weaknesses. The ANSRS project was designed to clarify the role of selective attention in the development of self-regulation and psychopathology.

Selective attention enhances the processing of certain information to the (relative) exclusion of other information. By “gating” information for further processing, selective attention is a critical prerequisite to higher order cognitive, emotional, and executive functions. Deficits in selective attention could therefore have wide-ranging effects on behavior and psychological adjustment.

This project involves a series of laboratory studies that will (a) characterize the development of both automatic (stimulus-driven) and voluntary (goal-driven) attention processes in typically developing children, (b) determine whether individual differences in automatic and voluntary attention are related to self-regulatory skill and psychosocial adjustment among typically developing and among high-risk samples of children, and (c) determine whether individual differences in the balance between the two processes (“attentional flexibility”) are associated with self-regulation skills and with risk of psychopathology. These studies use event-related potential (ERP) indices of attentional processes. Scalp-recorded ERPs provide a precise measure of the time course of mental operations and can reveal attention effects that are completely masked in overt behavioral response measures. ERPs can also measure the processing of stimuli even when there is no behavioral response, which allows us to examine the brain response to both attended and unattended information.


2011-2012: Based upon results from initial studies, ERP measures of attention and self-regulation have been further refined to provide efficient, sensitive, and reliable assessments of individual differences in brain-based indices of attention and self-regulation. These refined measures can now be used to examine both developmental and intervention-related changes in attention and self-regulation. The ANSRS team has also been developing laboratory measures to examine how attention and self-regulation influence learning, with a particular focus on the acquisition of literacy skills among kindergarten students. Student-led projects have examined the role of attention in gender stereotypes and relationships between hemispheric asymmetry and empathy.

2010: More than 300 children, adolescents, and young adults participated in ANSRS studies. Preliminary analyses were completed for a large EEG study examining the typical development of attention from ages 8 to 14 and the relationships between basic attention skills, self-regulation, and psychopathology. Data collection was completed and analyses were underway for several other studies, including examinations of sensitivity to feedback and errors during learning, individual differences in conflict-related responses, and the effectiveness of mindfulness techniques for improving attention skills. Results from an earlier study were published showing specific types of attention weaknesses in youth at risk for certain types of antisocial behavior. We also began preparation for an upcoming study that will involve the collection of neuroimaging data from youth enrolled in the Early Steps Project.

2009: A large EEG/event-related potential (ERP) study of the development of attention from ages 8 to 14 years was completed. More than 150 children and adolescents from the community participated in this study. The data were analyzed to determine which aspects of attention are mature by age 8 and which continue to develop through adolescence. The team examined whether youth with stronger attention skills show better self-regulation and better psychosocial adjustment. The results of this study will help us identify attention weaknesses in youth and will guide the development of attention training programs for at-risk children and adolescents.