Academic journal article Family Relations

Neurobiological Bases of Executive Function and Social-Emotional Development: Typical and Atypical Brain Changes

Academic journal article Family Relations

Neurobiological Bases of Executive Function and Social-Emotional Development: Typical and Atypical Brain Changes

Article excerpt

Special IssueGuest Editor'sNote: In this article the authors provide an overview of the role of the prefrontal cortex in supporting emotional and social behavior as well as moral judgment. They examine implications for adolescents' behavior when prefrontal cortex development is adversely affected. In the paired article, "The Influence of Family Characteristics on Problem Behaviors in a Sample of High-Risk Caribbean Adolescents" (this issue, pp. 120-133), Maguire and Fishbein examine family risk factors that influence adolescents' social decision making and behavior.

Neuroscience research continues to expand into more areas of human development because of the strong interest in understanding the neurobiological bases of people's actions, achievements, and difficulties. This has resulted in an increasing array of typical child and adolescent behavioral processes that have been examined in relationship to brain maturation and genetic factors. Two areas have come into increasing focus in the neurodevelopmental literature: (a) executive functions (EF) and (b) sociomoral processing. The EF construct has been found to provide an overall framework for cognitive development. Its purpose is to organize and utilize all available cognitive and emotional resources effectively toward achieving goals and, ultimately, rewards. Similarly, there has been recognition that there are significant social influences on the brain in the form of protective nurturing and stress-buffering effects by parents and acquisition of language, cultural values, and skills that shape the very structure and function of many brain regions. These investigations have affirmed that the brain plays an important role in sociomoral abilities such as perspective-taking; empathy; moral dilemmas; interpretation of the emotions and motives of others; and social emotions such as gratitude, embarrassment, and fear. There is increasing evidence that the development of these capabilities is dependent on the anatomical and physiological integrity of specific brain areas and their connections, sometimes referred to as the social brain or the mentalizing network. In this sense, specific regions of the brain and the social environment are reciprocally attuned to each other and intertwined throughout development. In this article we highlight several of the new findings in the neuroscience and neuropsychology of child and adolescent development with a focus on EF and sociomoral cognition. Maturation of the prefrontal cortex appears critical to these behavioral processes. We will not only address typical neurodevelopmental systems but also describe some of the alterations to human adaptation caused by early damage or disruption to the brain and how it affects a young person's abilities to thrive within a family and in other social settings. Remedial approaches will also be considered.

Executive Functions, the Prefrontal Cortex, and Development

Childhood and adolescence are characterized by changes in cognitive and behavioral processes in line with the maturation of brain areas involved in higher order functions. Research suggests that the first dozen years of life are especially dramatic in terms of developmental neural changes (e.g., Hinnant, Nelson, O'Brien, Keane, & Calkins, 2013; Davis, 2011; Johnson & de Haan, 2010). During that time, children typically acquire much social, cognitive, and emotional knowledge and experience within everyday sociomoral contexts. These are intermixed with reactions from others, with the consequences of their actions, and with their own thoughts and feelings. How the brain handles these many pieces of experience, separated by time and situation yet all continually relating to the individual and his or her environment, poses an intriguing set of challenges. To help navigate this changing landscape, the EF network is thought to provide important mechanisms for consistent goal-directed behavior and decision making throughout development (Eslinger, Flaherty-Craig, & Benton, 2004). …

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