Kevin Lewis

January 03, 2016

Biological Sensitivity to Family Income: Differential Effects on Early Executive Functioning

Jelena Obradović, Ximena Portilla & Parissa Ballard

Child Development, forthcoming

The study examined how the interplay between children's cortisol response and family income is related to executive function (EF) skills. The sample included one hundred and two 5- to 6-year-olds (64% minority). EF skills were measured using laboratory tasks and observer ratings. Physiological reactivity was assessed via cortisol response during a laboratory visit. A consistent, positive association between family income and EF skills emerged only for children who showed high cortisol response, a marker of biological sensitivity to context. In contrast, family income was not related to EF skills in children who displayed low cortisol response. Follow-up analyses revealed a disordinal interaction, suggesting that differential susceptibility can be detected at the level of basic cognitive and self-regulatory skills that support adaptive functioning.


Relaxed genetic control of cortical organization in human brains compared with chimpanzees

Aida Gómez-Robles et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1 December 2015, Pages 14799–14804

The study of hominin brain evolution has focused largely on the neocortical expansion and reorganization undergone by humans as inferred from the endocranial fossil record. Comparisons of modern human brains with those of chimpanzees provide an additional line of evidence to define key neural traits that have emerged in human evolution and that underlie our unique behavioral specializations. In an attempt to identify fundamental developmental differences, we have estimated the genetic bases of brain size and cortical organization in chimpanzees and humans by studying phenotypic similarities between individuals with known kinship relationships. We show that, although heritability for brain size and cortical organization is high in chimpanzees, cerebral cortical anatomy is substantially less genetically heritable than brain size in humans, indicating greater plasticity and increased environmental influence on neurodevelopment in our species. This relaxed genetic control on cortical organization is especially marked in association areas and likely is related to underlying microstructural changes in neural circuitry. A major result of increased plasticity is that the development of neural circuits that underlie behavior is shaped by the environmental, social, and cultural context more intensively in humans than in other primate species, thus providing an anatomical basis for behavioral and cognitive evolution.


Effects of short-term music and second-language training on executive control

Monika Janus et al.
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, April 2016, Pages 84–97

Separate lines of research have identified enhanced performance on nonverbal executive control (EC) tasks for bilinguals and those with music training, but little is known about the relation between them in terms of the specificity of the effects of each experience or the degree of exposure necessary to induce these changes. Using an intervention design, the current study pseudorandomly assigned 57 4- to 6-year-old children (matched on age, maternal education, and cognitive scores) to a 20-day training program offering instruction in either music or conversational French. The test battery consisted of verbal and nonverbal tasks requiring EC. All children improved on these tasks following training with some training-specific differences. No changes were observed on background or working memory measures after either training, ruling out simple practice effects. Children in both groups had better scores on the most challenging condition of a grammaticality sentence judgment task in which it was necessary to ignore conflict introduced through misleading semantic content. Children in both training groups also showed better accuracy on the easier condition of a nonverbal visual search task at post-test, but children in the French training group also showed significant improvement on the more challenging condition of this task. These results are discussed in terms of emergent EC benefits of language and music training.


It's getting bigger all the time: Estimating the Flynn effect from secular brain mass increases in Britain and Germany

Michael Woodley of Menie et al.
Learning and Individual Differences, January 2016, Pages 95–100

Secular increases in brain mass over nearly a century have been noted for both males and females in the UK and Germany. It has been argued that such trends may be associated with the Flynn effect. The IQ gain predicted on the basis of these trends is 0.19 and 0.08 points per decade for UK, and 0.2 and 0.15 points per decade for German males and females respectively, indicating a small contribution to the Fullscale IQ trends in these countries (2.95% of the German decadal gain and 12.73% of the UK gain). There is also a sex difference in the rates of brain mass gain in both countries, favoring males. Temporal correlations between the secular trend in UK brain mass and European Flynn effects on Fullscale IQ, Crystallized, Fluid and Spatial abilities reveal correlations ranging from 0.751 in the case of Fluid ability to 0.761 in the case of Crystallized ability. The brain mass increase may be an imperfect proxy for changes in specific neuroanatomical structures important for IQ gains. Its small contribution to these gains is also consistent with the influence of other contributing factors. Increasing brain mass is predicted by the life history model of the Flynn effect as it suggests increased somatic effort allocation into bioenergetically expensive cortical real estate facilitating the development of specialized cognitive abilities.


Individual Differences and Specificity of Prefrontal Gamma Frequency-tACS on Fluid Intelligence Capabilities

E. Santarnecchi et al.
Cortex, February 2016, Pages 33–43

Emerging evidence suggests that transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) is an effective, frequency-specific modulator of endogenous brain oscillations, with the potential to alter cognitive performance. Here, we show that reduction in response latencies to solve complex logic problem indexing fluid intelligence is obtained through 40Hz-tACS (γ-band) applied to the prefrontal cortex. This improvement in human performance depends on individual ability, with slower performers at baseline receiving greater benefits. The effect could have not being explained by regression to the mean, and showed task and frequency specificity: it was not observed for trials not involving logical reasoning, as well as with the application of low frequency 5Hz-tACS (theta band) or non-periodic high frequency random noise stimulation (101-640Hz). Moreover, performance in a spatial working memory task was not affected by brain stimulation, excluding possible effects on fluid intelligence enhancement through an increase in memory performance. We suggest that such high-level cognitive functions are dissociable by frequency-specific neuromodulatory effects, possibly related to entrainment of specific brain rhythms. We conclude that individual differences in cognitive abilities, due to acquired or developmental origins, could be reduced during frequency-specific tACS, a finding that should be taken into account for future individual cognitive rehabilitation studies.


The effect of γ-tACS on working memory performance in healthy controls

Kate Hoy et al.
Brain and Cognition, December 2015, Pages 51–56

Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) has been widely investigated for its potential to enhance cognition, and in particular working memory, however to date standard approaches to stimulation have shown only modest effects. Alternative, more specialised, forms of current delivery may be better suited to cognitive enhancement. One such method is transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (tACS) which delivers stimulation at a specific frequency and has been shown to entrain endogenous cortical oscillations which underlie cognitive functioning. To date there has been no comparison of the effects of tACS to those of tDCS on cognitive enhancement. In a randomised repeated-measures study design we assessed the effect of gamma (γ)-tACS, tDCS and sham tDCS on working memory in 18 healthy participants who attended three sessions held at least 72 h apart. Pre- and post-stimulation working memory performance was assessed using the 2 and 3-back. Our findings indicated the presence of a selective improvement in performance on the 3-back task following γ-tACS compared with tDCS and sham stimulation. The current findings provide support for further and more detailed investigation of the role of γ-tACS as a more specialised approach to neuromodulation.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.