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Brain Cogn. 2002 Oct;50(1):73-89.

Cognitive efficiency on a match to sample task decreases at the onset of puberty in children.

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  • 1San Diego State University, 6330 Alvarado Ct, 207, San Diego, CA 92120, USA.


Electrocortical evidence indicates that a wave of synaptic proliferation occurs in the frontal lobes around the age of puberty onset. To study its potential influence on cognition, we examined 246 children (10-17 years) and 49 young adults (18-22 years) using a match-to-sample type of task to measure reaction times to assess emotionally related information. Based upon the instruction set, subjects made a yes/no decision about the emotion expressed in a face, a word, or a face/word combination presented tachistoscopically for 100 ms. The faces were images of a single individual with a happy, angry, sad or neutral expression. The words were 'happy,' 'angry,' 'sad,' or 'neutral,' In the combined stimulus condition, subjects were asked to decide if the face and word matched for the same emotion. Results showed that compared to the previous year, reaction times were significantly slower for making a correct decision at 11 and 12 years of age in girls and boys, the approximate ages of puberty onset. The peripubertal rise in reaction time declined slowly over the following 2-3 years and stabilized by 15 years of age. Analyses of the performance of 15-17 year olds revealed significantly longer reaction times in females to process both faces and words compared to males. However, this sex difference in late puberty appeared to be transient since it was not present in 18-22 year olds. Given the match-to-sample nature of the task employed, the puberty related increases in reaction time may reflect a relative inefficiency in frontal circuitry prior to the pruning of excess synaptic contacts.

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