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How does attentional control matter? Mechanisms and developmental dynamics

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Attentional control plays a crucial role in biasing incoming information in favour of what is relevant to further processing, action selection and specific long-term task goals. However, assessing these selective processes over developmental time highlights how attentional processes are best understood not simply as a control homunculus, but rather as bidirectionally influencing and influenced by prior experience. Today I will focus on two complementary lines of evidence pointing in this direction.

The first line of work centres on children receiving early genetic diagnoses associated with high risk of attention deficits in late childhood. The specific molecular pathways implicated in each case point to changes in functional gene networks involved in neural development and responsivity to environmental stimulation, rather than specific or localised lesion-like deficits. A series of longitudinal findings suggest that early group and individual differences in attentional processes over developmental time predict differences from behavioural deficits to classroom outcomes, and may therefore be a beneficial endophenotype for early intervention.

However, and leading to the second line of investigation, understanding the adverse effects of attentional difficulties also requires studying how attentional control gates learning over typical development. Distinct aspects of attentional control predict concurrent and longitudinal abilities related to basic literacy and numeracy in preschoolers and the primary school years. In addition, experimental manipulations highlight change and stability in the interplay between attentional control, memory and learning. Children and young adults differ in the extent to which they deploy visuo-spatial attentional control to optimize maintenance in short-term memory. At the same time, attentional effects on memory are not unidirectional: previously learnt information and resistance to distraction during learning guide later attentional deployment, in adulthood and in childhood.

In conclusion, assessing attentional development, both in populations at high risk for attentional difficulties and over typical development, highlights bidirectional influences between attention, memory and learning. I look forward to discussing with you implications for optimal intervention strategies in populations at risk, as well as theoretical models of typical attention.

This talk is part of the Chaucer Club series.

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