ERP markers of target selection discriminate children with high vs. low working memory capacity.
Shimi A., Nobre AC., Scerif G.
Selective attention enables enhancing a subset out of multiple competing items to maximize the capacity of our limited visual working memory (VWM) system. Multiple behavioral and electrophysiological studies have revealed the cognitive and neural mechanisms supporting adults' selective attention of visual percepts for encoding in VWM. However, research on children is more limited. What are the neural mechanisms involved in children's selection of incoming percepts in service of VWM? Do these differ from the ones subserving adults' selection? Ten-year-olds and adults used a spatial arrow cue to select a colored item for later recognition from an array of four colored items. The temporal dynamics of selection were investigated through EEG signals locked to the onset of the memory array. Both children and adults elicited significantly more negative activity over posterior scalp locations contralateral to the item to-be-selected for encoding (N2pc). However, this activity was elicited later and for longer in children compared to adults. Furthermore, although children as a group did not elicit a significant N2pc during the time-window in which N2pc was elicited in adults, the magnitude of N2pc during the "adult time-window" related to their behavioral performance during the later recognition phase of the task. This in turn highlights how children's neural activity subserving attention during encoding relates to better subsequent VWM performance. Significant differences were observed when children were divided into groups of high vs. low VWM capacity as a function of cueing benefit. Children with large cue benefits in VWM capacity elicited an adult-like contralateral negativity following attentional selection of the to-be-encoded item, whereas children with low VWM capacity did not. These results corroborate the close coupling between selective attention and VWM from childhood and elucidate further the attentional mechanisms constraining VWM performance in children.