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Executive Function

Executive functions gradually improve over one’s life and are crucial for supporting advanced thinking in a variety of domains. We have shown that there are larger age-related differences in the brain for response inhibition than for visual search, and have suggested that this is due to slower maturation of the frontal lobes critical for executive functioning. We have also shown that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) exhibit larger brain abnormalities for response inhibition than for visual search, suggesting that a central deficit in ADHD is executive function.

 

Our more recent work tested whether altering the context of the executive function task enhanced behavioral and brain function in children with ADHD. We used an innovative task design to orthogonally manipulate both reward size and the presence or absence of feedback during a working memory task. We found that there was a normalization of behavior and frontal activation only when children with ADHD performed the working memory task under large reward conditions in the presence of feedback. This is consistent with some of our other work showing the benefits of feedback learning compared to observational learning. Using classification algorithms to ‘diagnose’ ADHD children with this ensemble of tasks, we obtained over 90% specificity and sensitivity. We have a patent on this work opening up the way for an objective biomarker of ADHD. Using a novel verbal working memory task with threatening images, our future work aims to determine whether reading disability leads to anxiety or vice versa, or whether these disorders are caused by environmental adversity.