Changes in frontal and posterior cortical activity underlie the early emergence of executive function

Aaron Buss, John Spencer

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44 Citations (Scopus)
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Executive function (EF) is a key cognitive process that emerges in early childhood and facilitates children's ability to control their own behavior. Individual differences in EF skills early in life are predictive of quality-of-life outcomes 30 years later (Moffitt et al., 2011). What changes in the brain give rise to this critical cognitive ability? Traditionally, frontal cortex growth is thought to underlie changes in cognitive control (Bunge & Zelazo, 2006; Moriguchi & Hiraki, 2009). However, more recent data highlight the importance of long-range cortical interactions between frontal and posterior brain regions. Here, we test the hypothesis that developmental changes in EF skills reflect changes in how posterior and frontal brain regions work together. Results show that children who fail a “hard” version of an EF task and who are thought to have an immature frontal cortex, show robust frontal activity in an “easy” version of the task. We show how this effect can arise via posterior brain regions that provide on-the-job training for the frontal cortex, effectively teaching the frontal cortex adaptive patterns of brain activity on “easy” EF tasks. In this case, frontal cortex activation can be seen as both the cause and the consequence of rule switching. Results also show that older children have differential posterior cortical activation on “easy” and “hard” tasks that reflects continued refinement of brain networks even in skilled children. These data set the stage for new training programs to foster the development of EF skills in at-risk children.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12602
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number4
Early online date15 Sep 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018

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