Training Cognitive Control to Improve Self-Regulatory Behavior and Mental Health in Adolescents

Investigator: Susanne Jaeggi, Ph.D.

Graduate Students: Jacky AuNancy Tsai 

Funding: UC Irvine Institute for Clinical and Translational Science

Project Description

Cognitive control (CC) is the mechanism supporting self-regulation and other goal-directed abilities that contribute to healthy mental and emotional functioning. Supported largely by the prefrontal cortex, CC does not reach functional maturity until young adulthood, while motivational/emotional drives, supported largely by subcortical/limbic regions, develop earlier. This neurocognitive imbalance is most prevalent in adolescence and leads to increased risk-taking, poor judgment, and emotional dysregulation. Since CC underlies performance in many regulatory abilities, training skills related to CC should benefit performance in those tasks relying on the integrity of CC. Indeed, there is accumulating evidence that training on CC generalizes to non-trained domains such as inhibitory control and decision-making.

My laboratory has been on the leading edge of this research, providing numerous demonstrations of such transfer effects. In the proposed project, we will apply our intervention work to an adolescent population in order to mitigate the functional imbalance in neuroanatomy. Our recruitment will focus on adolescents from a low socioeconomic background as they have been shown to be at risk for deficits in CC due to environmental factors. We will randomly assign participants to an experimental or a placebo control group. The experimental group will train on a newly developed CC game over the course of a month. Compared to the placebo group, we will test the intervention’s efficacy by examining (a) improvements in non-trained measures of inhibitory control and decision making, and (b) improvements in emotion regulation and overall well-being. Furthermore, we will (c) consider individual differences such as SES/stress or initial ability as moderators for the efficacy of training. In doing so, we hope to provide a causal model showing how specific cognitive functions can moderate decision making and emotion-regulation, and furthermore, contribute to the reduction of the achievement gap and the remediation of mental health disparities in adolescents.