Recent research investigating childhood conduct problems (CP) has emphasized the role of examining callous/unemotional traits (CU). CU traits refer to a shallow range of emotions including low empathy, a lack of guilt or remorse, and a lack of caring about behavioral performance. Over a decade's worth of research has shown that children with CP and high levels of CU (CP/CU) differ in meaningful ways from children with CP with low levels of CU (CP-only). Although CU traits are indicative of severe CP, it is important to note that the nature of the difference is not as simple as concluding that children with CP/CU are always worse than children with CP-only. For example, children with CP/CU experience less impairment than those with CP-only in other areas of functioning including social cognition and verbal intelligence. In addition, children with CP/CU exhibit impairments unique to their condition (that are not related to CP-only) including deficits in identifying fear and sad emotions and deficits in learning from punishment. Perhaps not surprisingly then, antisocial behaviors among children with CP/CU are less strongly associated with factors related to CP (e.g., ineffective parenting;low verbal IQ). This suggests that different mechanisms underlie antisocial behaviors in children with CP such that a unique mechanism may underlie antisocial behaviors in children with CP and high CU traits. CU-related mechanisms in childhood are an important area to examine given that CU traits indicate a severe form of childhood CP, and yet represent a gap in the literature. Filling this gap has great potential to inform assessment methods for CP and contribute to novel treatments aimed at addressing the unique impairments associated with severe antisocial behavior in these children. The current study proposes to examine a cognitive mechanism-response modulation (RM)-that is influential in understanding CU-related antisocial behavior in adults and adolescents. RM suggests that individuals with CP/CU are less able to shift their attentional focus away from information central to their immediate goal and towards information that is important yet peripheral to this goal. Because attending to peripheral information is crucial in modulating between behaviors to achieve a goal in the moment, individuals with CP/CU-who exhibit a less efficient RM process-are less able to modify their ongoing and goal-directed behaviors (including antisocial behaviors). This impaired process has direct implications for their severe antisocial behavior in the moment and their severe maladjustment over time. No research has examined RM in children with CP/CU. The primary aim of the proposed study is to examine the relationship between RM and CU in children with CP/ADHD. To address this aim, 66 children with CP/ADHD (ages 7-12) will complete a number of cognitive lab tasks that have demonstrated validity in measuring RM in adults and adolescents. The efficiency of the RM process will be assessed using CP and CU as predictors of RM. Not only will the current study inform the childhood CP/CU literature, but it will also extend the RM literature.

Public Health Relevance

The aim of the current study is to develop an understanding about the mechanisms that underlie conduct problem (CP) behaviors in a severe subgroup of children with CP-those with high levels of callous/unemotional (CU) traits-using a translational research orientation and basic science methodology with the goal of informing assessments and interventions for children with CP and high levels of CU. To do so, the current proposal will extend a well-validated and prominent CU-related mechanism-response modulation (RM)-that is influential in understanding CP behaviors in adults and adolescents with CP. Because CU traits are indicative of a severe form of CP in similar ways across children, adolescents, and adults, and because little research has examined CU-related mechanisms in children with CP, extending the RM process to children with CP and high levels of CU is an important next step in understanding children who are highly at-risk for later antisocial behavior and who do not response well to current behavioral treatments.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F31)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-F16-L (20))
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Sarampote, Christopher S
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Florida International University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
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Fite, Paula J; Gabrielli, Joy; Cooley, John L et al. (2014) Hope as a Moderator of the Associations between Common Risk Factors and Frequency of Substance Use among Latino Adolescents. J Psychopathol Behav Assess 36:653-662