Where the Heart Meets the Mind’s Eye: Associations Between Cardiac Measures of Autonomic Activity and Selective Attention in Children and Adults
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Multiple theoretical frameworks posit that interactions between the autonomic nervous system and higher-order neural networks are crucial for cognitive regulation. However, few studies have directly examined whether autonomic physiology influences brain activity during cognitive tasks, and even fewer of those studies have examined both autonomic branches when doing so. Measures of selective attention derived from event-related brain potentials (ERPs) are particularly well-suited for addressing this question, given that ERP selective attention tasks are designed to control for the influences of psychomotor processes and arousal and are predictive of higher-order cognitive function in children and adults. Such research is particularly promising for understanding how early adversity impacts neurocognitive development in children, given that stress experienced early in life impacts both autonomic function and selective attention. Here, a broad literature review is presented, integrating findings across studies of autonomic physiology, cognition, and brain activity in children and adults (Chapter 1). Then, two experiments are described where cardiac measures of parasympathetic and sympathetic activity were recorded concurrently with ERPs during an auditory selective task in a sample of adults (Chapter 2) and in a sample of preschool-aged children (Chapter 3). Results from both experiments demonstrate a key role for the sympathetic nervous system in selective attention for adults and children, such that greater sympathetic activity is associated with larger effects of selective attention on ERPs. These findings are then reviewed with suggestions for how existing models of neurovisceral integration might be updated to better emphasize the role of sympathetic nervous system activity in neurocognitive processes, emphasizing measures of threat-related and reward-related arousal, as represented by galvanic skin response and pre-ejection period, respectively (Chapter 4). Future directions are also discussed, including recommendations for future studies of neurovisceral integration to examine associations between physiology, behavior, and brain activity at the single-trial level, to incorporate participants from more diverse backgrounds of life experience, and to examine the plasticity of autonomic mechanisms implicated in neurocognitive function.