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Like Child’s Play: Compared To Adults, Children Recruit Additional Brain Areas To Complete A Mental Flexibility Task

Every day, people face unforeseen changes in their lives. Some of these events are trivial, such as when the local deli runs out of your favorite bagel, however, others can have important consequences. Regardless of the exact details, all these events require a shift in behaviour to accommodate the new circumstance.

Luckily we are equipped with various cognitive skills which can help us manoeuvre through these surprises. One particularly important skill for adapting to changing situations is mental flexibility. This is the cognitive function that allows us to be flexible in thought and action and respond to changes in our surroundings. In some clinical conditions, such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), this function can be a challenge. Even within the general population, as with every cognitive skill, there is great variability in ability, where some people are naturally better at it than others.

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Mental flexibility develops with age and experience. It is common in childhood to have characteristic inflexibilities, for example, demanding that all of one’s toys be red in colour, or wanting to wear one’s favourite sweater every day of the year. Previous psychological research has determined that, by eight years of age, children are able to complete basic tests of mental flexibility, although these skills continue to develop and reach maturity closer to ages 10-12 years.

While there is an abundance of neuroimaging literature on mental flexibility in adults, there are few studies in children. These studies have shown that children ages eight and above activate the same brain areas as adults. Nonetheless, there are some hints of differences in children, such as a seeming reliance on a greater number of brain regions to complete the same task, as well as a difference in when areas are activated. In our study, we asked 22 children (ages 8-15 years) to perform a mental flexibility task while we scanned them in a real-time, millisecond-resolution brain scanner called an MEG (MagnetoEncephaloGraphy); we wanted to confirm previous findings, and further tease apart the sequence of activity in the brain.

Our results revealed that children performed our task well and relied on some of the same brain regions as adults. Yet, to complete the task with high accuracy, the children also recruited other brain regions. In an adult study which we completed a few years ago, we found that adults use a very tight network of brain regions, primarily in the prefrontal lobes, which are the cognitive-executive powerhouses of the brain.

In children, however, the network spanned more areas, with a greater emphasis on parietal regions. As the prefrontal regions do not fully mature until young adulthood, these findings indicate that children need to recruit additional brain regions to support their mental flexibility function. Likely, the parietal regions, which mature earlier in life, play a more dominant role early on, handing over the reins to the prefrontal regions as they mature. Over time, the cognitive network becomes more refined, and the “additional” brain regions needed in childhood, fall away.

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Research in this domain is important, as mental flexibility is a crucial cognitive ability that allows us to change and adapt our behavioral patterns when faced with unexpected roadblocks. Our study is the first to examine, in children, the brain areas used, and their timing, when performing a mental flexibility task. This work establishes a baseline which can be applied to the study of neurodevelopmental conditions where children struggle with mental flexibility.

Possibly, in these clinical conditions, there is a failure to adequately ‘hand over the reins’ between parietal and prefrontal regions, which may contribute to cognitive inflexibility. Of course, further research is needed; however, for now, this study is another example of the developing brain’s beautiful capacity for plasticity, allowing the child to change, grow and mature, and gradually take a stronger foothold in their world.

These findings are described in the article entitled Mental flexibility: An MEG investigation in typically developing children, recently published in the journal Brain and Cognition. This work was conducted by Alexandra MogadamAnne E. KellerMargot J. TaylorJason P. LerchEvdokia Anagnostou, and Elizabeth W. Pang from SickKids Research Institute.

References:

  1. Children:  Mogadam A, Keller AE, Taylor MJ, Lerch JP, Anagnostou E, Pang EW. (2018). Mental flexibility: an MEG investigation in typically developing children. Brain and Cognition, 120, 58-66. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0278262617301197.
  2. Adults:  Oh A, Vidal J, Taylor MJ, Pang EW. (2014). Neuromagnetic correlates of intra- and extra-dimensional set-shifting. Brain and Cognition, 86, 90-97.

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