May 5, 2021
by Patricia Tomasi
A new study published in the Journal of Applied Neuropsychology: Child looked at computerized inhibitory control training and its effect on reducing anxiety in preadolescent students.
“The key goal of the study was to further examine the interrelation between inhibitory control (IC) and anxiety in preadolescent-aged children, and to determine whether training IC through a remote, computerized program could serve as an effective means for reducing anxiety,” lead author, Nathaniel Shanok, Ph.D. told us. “We hoped to also gain a better understanding of the neural mechanisms that link anxiety and inhibitory control by way of resting-state EEG. Additionally, we sought to determine whether a child-friendly computer application could be utilized to strengthen IC and also reduce anxiety in this age-range.”
The research team hypothesized that at the baseline time point, IC ability would be negatively correlated with anxiety levels based on prior literature highlighting this association in both adults and older adolescents. They expected that the emotional version of the IC training (that which included emotional facial stimuli) would result in the largest reductions of anxiety compared to both the neutral IC training (that which included neutral facial stimuli) as well as the waitlist control condition.
They also expected that increased right frontal alpha asymmetry would be related to higher anxiety levels at baseline and that this activity pattern may be attenuated following IC training.
“I was first and foremost interested in this topic because of the rising anxiety levels that are especially prominent in youth demographics,” Shanok told us. “It seems that many families are avidly searching for ways to help their children cope with scholastic, social, and extra-curricular stressors that occur all the while during the context of rapid physical and mental development. The use of a remote, computerized cognitive training approach to managing anxiety has exciting potential due to its accessibility as well as its inevitable interest to children who are tech-savvy and enjoy playing games on the computer or other counsels. In order to spark broad interest in mental health management, it is essential that we as a community get creative and try to identify the approaches that are most suitable at the individual level.”
To test their hypotheses, the research team conducted a series of analyses at the baseline time point exploring 1) the association between both IC accuracy and IC reaction time with anxiety levels and 2) the association between anxiety levels and various resting-state EEG asymmetry measures in regions that have been implicated in mood disorders. At the baseline time point, all participants were assigned to one of three training conditions (emotional IC training, neutral IC training, and waitlist control). The two active conditions completed 16 sessions of the computerized training remotely over the course of 4 weeks. Following the training interval, measures of IC, anxiety, and resting-state EEG asymmetry were again assessed to determine the effects of training on these three constructs of interest.
To assess inhibitory control ability three tasks were used (go/no-go, flanker, and Stroop), while the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Disorders (SCARED) was used to capture anxiety. Resting-state EEG asymmetry was examined in prefrontal, mid frontal, lateral frontal, midline and parietal areas.
“The results confirmed that inhibitory control accuracy (not reaction time) was decreased as a function of increased anxiety and that greater right mid frontal alpha asymmetry also related to higher anxiety levels,” Shanok told us. “Notably, the emotional IC training led to the largest anxiety reductions of the three conditions, as was hypothesized. Still, it was somewhat surprising that both the emotional and neutral IC training conditions had significantly reduced anxiety, depression, and negative emotionality levels relative to the waitlist control and that differences between these two conditions were seldom present on these measures.”
Both active conditions also led to significant (and similar) improvements in IC accuracy relative to the waitlist control; however, only the emotional IC training led to a significant leftward shift of frontal alpha activity, indicating a reduced neurophysiological risk for anxiety.
“The results of this study are informative and exciting,” Shanok told us. “Although they are preliminary, they should open a window to further research and clinical investigation into the gFocus training application and similar others as viable and accessible options for reducing childhood risk for anxiety development.”
These types of cognitive and educational training applications are a great use of computer time for children.
“At this point in time, removing our children from their computers is likely a lost cause,” Shanok told us. “We may as well just accept this reality and use technology as a modality for delivering valuable content to them. As the saying goes, ‘if you can't beat them, join them.’”
About the Author
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com