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Investigating Parent-Child Brain Synchronization as a Risk Factor for Psychopathology

Sat, March 23, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 3, Room 313

Integrative Statement

Parental support is a critical aspect of the development of emotion regulation during the preschool period, however, normative parent support might be more challenging to achieve with highly irritable children. This may be because children with irritable temperament might be less attuned to social cues or because they are highly reactive and have not developed the regulatory skills needed to modulate their intense affect. This problem is particularly important to address because a lack of regulatory skills in preschool, and the neural underpinnings which support them, may form a weak foundation for both the development of future social relationships and adaptive mental health. Further, treatment-oriented approaches for emotion dysregulation in preschool largely focus upon the parent and child as a dyad, given children’s dependence upon parental support. We approached the investigation of the neural mechanisms of parent-child emotion co-regulation from the perspective of dyadic synchrony, defined as mutually focused and reciprocated exchanges between interactional partners.

We used functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to examine interpersonal neural synchronization during an adaptation of the Disruptive Behavior Diagnostic Observation Schedule (DB-DOS) in 118 typically-developing preschoolers (age 4-5) and their parents. FNIRS is a safe, non-invasive optical imaging technique, which is relatively movement insensitive and allows for social interaction. Parents and children were put into a mildly frustrating context in which they had a short time to complete puzzles that were too difficult for the child’s age level, while in the presence of attractive toys that the child was prevented from touching. Parent and child behavior on this task has been previously linked to disruptive behavior. After preprocessing, the robust correlation coefficient was computed between the fNIRS channels of each child and parent within the prefrontal cortex. This yielded 118 concurrent synchrony matrices (parent and child from same family/session) and 13,806 non-concurrent synchrony matrices (parent and child from different family/session). For each connection in the synchrony matrices, all 13,924 (concurrent and non-concurrent) Fisher's Z-transformed values were submitted to a mixed effects model, with concurrency modeled as a fixed effect and both parent ID and child ID modeled as random effects.

Results showed significantly greater synchrony for concurrent pairs than non-concurrent (Figure 1). Synchrony values extracted from the peak connection revealed a negative correlation between irritable temperament and parent-child interpersonal neural synchronization (Figure 2). Thus, brain synchronization between the parent and child, during a stressful context, was more difficult to achieve in children who are high in irritable temperament. This may imply a neural explanation for why parents with irritable children find it more difficult to support their child in the development of regulatory skills. These findings will be discussed along with behavioral data on synchronization coded from video tapes, and in the context of ongoing work aimed at using this technique for optimizing existing treatment strategies.

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