Winter 2020 Newsletter

New views into the hearts and minds of preschoolers

child reads book in classroom


Imaging methods to allow researchers a more in-depth understanding of brain-heart coordination in young children

University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers have been awarded a $390,483 grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate the role of coordinated brain and heart activity in the rapid development of self-regulation in 3- to 5-year-olds.

“How the heart functions in collaboration with the brain during a period of tremendous development and change is just ripe for research,” says developmental psychologist Kirby Deater-Deckard, professor of psychological and brain sciences.

One of the goals of the study, led by Deater-Deckhard and Adam Grabell, is to better identify and understand the causes of differences among young children in their self-regulation tendencies.

"We want to understand what the brain is doing when kids are trying to regulate their emotions." —Adam Grabell

This new study links up with ongoing work by Grabell that examines the roots of clinical irritability in young children. Together, the studies could lead to better learning tools for all children and better mental health care for children with a range of diagnoses.

“We want to understand what the brain is doing when kids are trying to regulate their emotions and how this predicts psychopathology,” says Grabell, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, whose work is supported by a $891,521 mentored career development award from the National Institutes of Health.

The project will bridge the research in Deater-Deckard’s Individual Differences in Development Lab and Grabell’s Self-Regulation, Emotions and Early Development (SEED) Lab. The research findings will contribute practical knowledge about preschoolers’ development that can be used by early childhood educators and policymakers to improve child development outcomes across the United States.

The researchers “have a shared interest in self-regulation and how we develop the skills and capacities to regulate or control our behaviors, our emotions and our thoughts, especially in response to something that’s suddenly rewarding, unexpected or stressful, or causes a strong emotional reaction,” says Deater-Deckard, director of the Healthy Development Initiative based at the UMass Center at Springfield. “These capacities are developing really rapidly in early childhood. We’ll be looking at what’s happening in the nervous system and in the body, and what’s supporting or impeding this development.”

The study seeks to establish new imaging methods expected to advance the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience and physiology research.

The brain activity of a young child is monitored by functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS)The research sites at UMass Amherst and UMass Center at Springfield will use child-friendly brain imaging technology known as fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) to measure how kids’ brains respond to frustration. An electrocardiogram (ECG) will simultaneously record heart activity.

Two hundred children from an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse community, including urban, suburban and rural settings, will participate in the study. “The kids wear a cap. They can sit in a chair and they can wiggle around and talk and stand up, and we’re still getting good data,” Grabell says.

Deater-Deckard is interested in examining the activity of the vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve that regulates the heartbeat, among other functions. “That system takes time to mature,” he says. “We are looking to see how well the heart can shift modes – when amping up or needing to amp down – and how it attempts to maintain a balance between readiness and rest.”

An important part of the project is a collaboration with local schools and families. Using hands-on tasks and games that assess brain and heart functioning, research team members will show students how the nervous and cardiovascular systems work together to help them learn. The team also will conduct professional development workshops with school personnel to translate research results into teaching practices.

“We’re really trying to build authentic, lasting relationships with the families, the schools throughout the area and the communities,” Deater-Deckard says. “For me, it’s a very rewarding part of my job.”