Neural Mechanisms Supporting Flexible Performance Adjustment during Development

By Crone, Eveline A.; Zanolie, Kiki et al. | Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Neural Mechanisms Supporting Flexible Performance Adjustment during Development


Crone, Eveline A., Zanolie, Kiki, Van Leijenhorst, Linda, Westenberg, P. Michiel, Rombouts, Serge A. R. B., Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience


Feedback processing is crucial for successful performance adjustment following changing task demands. The present event-related fMRI study was aimed at investigating the developmental differences in brain regions associated with different aspects of feedback processing. Children age 8-11, adolescents age 14-15, and adults age 18-24 performed a rule switch task resembling the Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, and analyses focused on different types of negative and positive feedback. All age groups showed more activation in lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and superior parietal cortex following negative relative to positive performance feedback, but the regions contributed to different aspects of feedback processing and had separable developmental trajectories. OFC was adultlike by age 8-11, whereas parietal cortex was adultlike by age 14-15. DLPFC and ACC, in contrast, were still developing after age 14-15. These findings demonstrate that changes in separable neural systems underlie developmental differences in flexible performance adjustment. Supplementary data from this study are available online at the Psychonomic Society Archive of Norms, Stimuli, and Data, at www.psychonomic.org/archive.

In a changing environment, it is of great importance to flexibly adjust behavior on the basis of information about personal performance. An essential component of flexible behavioral adjustment is the ability to use performance feedback for subsequent performance. Feedback monitoring has been studied in the neuropsychological literature using the well-known Wisconsin Card Sorting Task (WCST; Demakis, 2003; Milner, 1963). This task requires participants to sort cards by color, shape, or number of items according to sorting rules the participants do not know beforehand. After a number of correct consecutive sorts, the sorting rule changes without warning, and participants need to infer the new rule on the basis of positive and negative feedback. The advantage of this task is that it requires monitoring of performance errors and flexible performance adjustment, thereby resembling real-life sitnations in which performance also needs to be adjusted on the basis of changing environmental demands.

Poor WCST performance has been associated with damage to lateral prefrontal cortex (lat-PFC). Patients with lat-PFC damage have been found to perseverate in applying the previously correct sorting rule (Barcelo & Knight, 2002). Behavioral studies show that 6- to 12-year-old children also have difficulty performing the WCST because their performance resembles that of patients with lat-PFC damage (Huizinga, Dolan, & van der Molen, 2006; Welsh, Pennington, & Groisser, 1991). The protracted development of performance monitoring has been confirmed in other paradigms in which correct performance was dependent on feedback processing (Luciana & Nelson, 1998). Recently, a number of electrophysiological studies have investigated how children and adolescents monitor their performance after committing errors. Using speeded flanker or go/no-go tasks, researchers have studied developmental differences in a negative scalp deflection that is time-locked to an incorrect response (the error-related negativity [ERN]; Falkenstein, Hohnsbein, Hoormann, & Blanke, 1991). Importantly, this potential is sensitive to committing an error even without performance feedback. Developmental studies have demonstrated that error monitoring, as indexed by the size of the ERN, continues to develop into adolescence (Davies, Segalowitz, & Gavin, 2004; Kim, Iwaki, Imashioya, Uno, & Fujita, 2007; Wiersema, van der Meere, & Roeyers, 2007). Thus, behavioral studies have demonstrated developmental changes in feedback learning, and event-related potential (ERP) researchers have demonstrated changes in error monitoring until late adolescence. This protracted developmental trajectory has great implications for learning, because most of the improvements are based on the evaluation of internal or external feedback about one's own behavior. …

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