The adult and child clinical literature suggests that individuals who are clinically anxious or have high levels of trait anxiety show attention biases to 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 and are important proof of concept. However, they cannot elucidate how these information-processing biases actually develop over the course of childhood. 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. Anxious adults and children show attention biases to threat, early temperament is associated with elevated levels of negative affect and anxiety, and normative patterns of preferential attention to threat are evident as early as the first year of life. 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 longitudinal study will employ three eye-tracking tasks that capture core components of attention in infants assessed at five time-points from 4 to 24 months of age. In addition, we will implement a rich assessment of temperamental negative affect, which is associated with the later emergence of anxiety and social withdrawal. Finally, we will assess known biopsychosocial markers of risk that probe neural (EEG), and parasympathetic (RSA) mechanisms. We will also examine moderating parent-centered mechanisms of socioemotional development. This line of research reflects the focus in the Research Domain Criteria on integrating multilevel mechanisms by examining response to potential threat (negative valence systems), attention patterns (cognitive systems) and early patterns of affect across varying socioemotional contexts (negative valence systems and social processes). We also go to the heart of NIMH's Objective 2, by characterizing trajectories of neural and behavioral development in order to identify clinically useful indicators of change across illness trajectories.
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 infancy, this relation has not been systematically studied. The current longitudinal study will examine patterns of attention to threat from 4 to 24 months of age and early associations with temperamental negative affect, biological markers of risk, and parental characteristics.
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