The adult and child clinical literature suggests that individuals who are clinically anxious or have high levels of trait anxiety show attention biases t threat. In addition, when these attention biases are experimentally manipulated in the lab, researchers can exacerbate or ameliorate levels of anxious thought and behavior. This has led researchers to argue that attention biases to threat may cause anxiety. However, the degree to which threat-related attention bias represents a down-stream result of ongoing anxiety or an early-emerging predisposing factor implicated in the risk for the development of anxiety disorders remains unclear. The studies highlighting the effectiveness of attention manipulation take a mechanistic view of the relation between attention and affect. These studies are important and useful proof of concept for the assumption that attention may play a causal role in the emergence of anxiety. However, they cannot elucidate how these information processing biases actually develop over the course of childhood. Infant studies suggest that a general preference for looking to threat-relevant stimuli is evident in the first year of life, but have no captured the importance of individual differences or specific subcomponents of attention. In some children, affect biased attention, the predisposition to preferentially attend to affective stimuli, may "tune" initial attentional filters to seek out and identify threat, biasing subsequent information processing and behavioral enactment and serving as a foundational form of emotion regulation. We know that anxious adults and children show attention biases to threat, that early temperament is associated with elevated levels of negative affect and anxiety, and that normative patterns of preferential attention to threat are evident as early as the first year of lie. However, we know little concerning how these inter-relations appear and change over time since much of the attention-affect literature (1) has focused on adult clinically-defined populations, (2) does not systematically assess both constructs across multiple tasks and contexts, and (3) rarely takes a developmental view that examines core mechanisms as they emerge in infancy and differentiate between normative patterns and patterns associated with specific risk factors. The current study proposes to refine and validate three eye- tracking tasks that capture core components of attention in the first two years of life. In addition, we will implement a rich assessment of temperamental negative affect, which is associated with the later emergence of anxiety and social withdrawal. This line of research reflects the focus in the Research Domain Criteria on integrating mechanisms by examining response to potential threat (negative valence systems), attention patterns (cognitive systems) and early patterns of affect across varying socio-emotional contexts (negative valence systems and social processes).
Anxiety greatly limits a child's social functioning and may be caused by a bias to attend to threat in the environment. While we believe that the link between anxiety and attention may emerge in the first two years of life, this relation has not been systematically studied. The current study will examine patterns of attention to threat in infants and early associations with temperamental negative emotion, a potential early risk factor for anxiety.
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