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Ground-breaking research connects cognition and emotion development

Martha Ann Bell has 108 children.

Bell, associate professor of psychology in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, and her research team are studying how cognitions and emotions are related in children and how this relationship changes as children develop from infancy into their preschool years.

Their research is the first of its kind to track this type of information over several years.

    CAP Lab research; researcher with toddler
The group has launched phase two of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and has received additional NIH funding to significantly increase the sample size. Bell will soon have many more children to call “hers.”

Cognition and Emotion 101

Bell focuses on the type of cognition called working memory — the kind of memory that enables us to hold information in our head for a brief time and then update the information as we solve a problem.

It’s something even infants can do and is especially important when children enter school and begin developing reading and math skills.

Her emotion focus looks closely at certain autonomous, rather than conscious, temperament characteristics.

The regulation of emotion in children is based on factors such as temperament, brain development, learned behavior, and parental guidance.

The CAP Lab

    CAP Lab research; child being fitted with a brain wave cap
Bell’s research is carried out in Virginia Tech’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, also known as the CAP (Cognition, Affect, and Psychophysiology) Lab. The infants and children in her study contribute two physiological indicators of cognition and emotion: heart rate and brain wave activity. During testing, children are hooked up to a heart rate monitor, and each wears a cap that records electrical impulses from various parts of the brain.

“We notice a really big difference in electroencephalogram (EEG) patterns of activity between infancy and preschool,” Bell says.

"When preschoolers perform tasks, specific areas of the brain are involved for each task, compared to infants where the whole brain is involved. So over time, the brain becomes more specialized and efficient," says Bell.

Until recently, it was believed that the affective subdivision was suppressed during cognitive processes and vice versa; however, recent studies of adults have indicated interaction between the two, especially on certain types of tasks.

“Our study examines the processes by which emotions may organize behavior and modify thinking and learning, as well as the processes by which cognitive processes help regulate emotion behaviors in infants and young children,” Bell says.

Phases one and two

The first phase of Bell’s research involved randomly selected infants who visited the lab at five months of age and again at 10 months. The babies were fitted with heart-rate patches and EEG caps and were given developmentally appropriate tasks to perform. These included memory tasks, attention tasks, and emotion tasks.

    CAP Lab research; a child models a brain wave cap

In addition, parents complete several questionnaires as a means of assessing their children’s overall temperament and behavior.

The same children return to the lab at ages 2, 3, and 4 years.

Bell’s previous work was the first to add EEG data to the body of knowledge regarding working memory development in infants. This data indicated a definite change in brain activity when working memory tasks were presented to the infant. It also demonstrated that individual differences in working memory functioning were related to individual differences in brain electrical activity and temperament in infancy.

Future studies

In the future, Bell would like to expand her study to include a visitation with the same children at age 6, when they are ready to start first grade.

Bell would also like to add some of the participants’ mothers to the study to look at possible cognition/emotion relationships between parent and offspring. So far, she and Virginia Tech psychology colleague Kirby Deater-Deckard have invited 15 mothers to the lab.

These women completed questionnaires about themselves and performed computerized versions of working memory tasks while wearing EEG caps and heart-rate patches. The results from this small sample were used as preliminary data for a grant application on mother/child cognition and psychophysiology submitted by Bell and Deater-Deckard.

Working memory

    CAP Lab research; researcher, infant, and parent

An example of a working-memory task might be to show the infant a toy hidden beneath one of three cups.

The infant is then gently and momentarily distracted and then prompted to try to remember which cup the toy is under.

Research FYI

  • In spring 2007, Bell received a five-year, $1.8 million dollar grant from NIH to expand her study.
  • Approximately 100 new infants and children will be added to the longitudinal study in Blacksburg and Virginia’s New River Valley.
  • The grant will also allow colleague Susan Calkins, professor of human development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, to also join the study with 200 more participants.
  • All of Bell’s research is basic science rather than applied.
  • Basic research contributes new information and data to the base of scientific knowledge that already exists about infants and children.
  • The longitudinal nature of the project gives Bell and her researchers the ability to study how working memory changes from infant to early childhood.

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