A study from Brain and Behavior found that children who respond to errors with a larger error-related negativity (ERN) fared better on a range of psychological outcomes one to two years later — including anxiety, depression, and emotion regulation. The study authors say the ERN may serve as a neuromarker of resilience in children.
The error-related negativity response is an electrical brain signal that occurs after a person makes a behavioral mistake. The response stems from the anterior cingulate cortex and has been identified as an indicator of future mental health. However, the research findings are somewhat contradictory. Some studies have suggested that an enlarged ERN in childhood predicts worse mental health, while other studies have found better mental health among children with larger ERNs.
Study authors Jamie M. Lawler and her team conducted a study to explore the link between ERN activity in young children and the development of emotion regulation, cognitive control, and psychopathology one to two years later.
“About 1 in 5 kids experiences an emotional or behavioral problem but we as a field are not very good at predicting which kids that will be. Our research is one part of trying to understand how to identify children early so that we can hopefully intervene before big problems develop,” said Lawler, an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University and director of the Self-regulation, Early Experience, and Development Lab.
Their study made use of data from a larger project and included two time points. At the baseline assessment, children were between the ages of 4 and 7 and took part in a “Go/No Go Task” — a cognitive task that requires participants to respond to certain stimuli and refrain from responding to other stimuli. The “Go/No Go” task was used to measure ERN. The children’s parents completed reports of their child’s cognitive control, negative affectivity, and internalizing and externalizing symptoms.
From the initial sample, the researchers selected a subset of children who either showed a high ERN amplitude (15 children) or a low ERN amplitude (15 children). The groups were matched by age and sex as closely as possible. At a follow-up study around one to two years later, the two groups of children completed several tests to assess cognitive control, and their parents also completed assessments of the child’s cognitive control. Both the children and their parents additionally completed measures of child emotion regulation and internalizing and externalizing symptoms.
At baseline, the group of children with a high ERN amplitude fared better according to parental reports of cognitive control, negative affectivity (e.g., anger, fear, discomfort), and externalizing symptoms (e.g., aggression, overactivity) compared to the low ERN group. Moreover, when reassessed one to two years later, the high ERN group continued to show these benefits and additionally showed better emotion regulation and fewer child-reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.
Finally, the researchers compared the follow-up scores for the two groups while controlling for their scores at baseline. They found that the high ERN group still fared better than the low ERN group when it came to parental reports of cognitive control, negative affectivity, and externalizing symptoms, and child-reported emotion dysregulation and anxiety and depression symptoms. As Lawler and her team explain, this suggests that the two groups actually differed in their changes in these measures over time. Therefore, an enlarged ERN could be considered a predictor of resilience to declines in cognitive control, externalizing symptoms, and psychopathology over time.
The analysis also revealed that better emotion regulation mediated the relationship between a larger ERN amplitude at baseline and lower anxiety at the follow-up. Moreover, both better emotion regulation and better cognitive control mediated the link between larger ERN at baseline and fewer externalizing symptoms one to two years later.
“We looked at a brain marker that is associated with error monitoring (how well we pay attention to figure out if we’ve made a mistake) and found that 5-7 year old kids who showed a stronger marker were less likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems one to two years later,” Lawler told PsyPost.
“Children with a weaker marker tended to struggle with self-control and were at higher risk of developing problems over the next couple of years. We also found that how well a child could regulate their emotions accounted for the relationship between the brain marker and the later outcomes. With further research, we may be able to use this information to identify children who are at increased risk for problems and develop interventions to prevent psychopathology before it develops.”
The study authors say their sample size was small, and future studies should be conducted among clinical samples. “We used a community sample, so we need to see what this looks like in children with clinically significant disorders,” Lawler explained. “It is also important to remember that just because someone has an increased risk of problems, doesn’t mean they are necessarily going to develop them (or vice versa). The development of psychopathology is very complex and this is just one piece of the puzzle.
Nonetheless, the results suggest that a blunted ERN offers a way to identify young children who may be at risk of psychopathology and who might benefit from intervention.
The study, “The error-related negativity as a neuromarker of risk or resilience in young children”, was authored by Jamie M. Lawler, Jessica Hruschak, Kristin Aho, Yanni Liu, Ka I. Ip, Renee Lajiness-O’Neill, Katherine L. Rosenblum, Maria Muzik, and Kate D. Fitzgerald.