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Dev Sci. 2014 Mar;17(2):212-23. doi: 10.1111/desc.12123. Epub 2014 Jan 4.

Differential influence of safe versus threatening facial expressions on decision-making during an inhibitory control task in adolescence and adulthood.

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Neurodevelopmental Lab, McLean Imaging Center, McLean Hospital, Belmont, USA; Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, USA.


Social cognition matures dramatically during adolescence and into early adulthood, supported by continued improvements in inhibitory control. During this time, developmental changes in interpreting and responding to social signals such as facial expressions also occur. In the present study, subjects performed a Go No-Go task that required them to respond or inhibit responding based on threat or safety cues present in facial expressions. Subjects (N = 112) were divided into three age groups: adolescent (12-15 years), emerging adult (18-25 years) and adult (26-44 years). Analyses revealed a significant improvement in accuracy on No-Go trials, but not Go trials, during both safe and threat face conditions, with changes evident through early adulthood. In order to better identify the decision-making processes responsible for these changes in inhibitory control, a drift diffusion model (DDM) was fit to the accuracy and reaction time data, generating measures of caution, response bias, nondecision time (encoding + motor response), and drift rate (face processing efficiency). Caution and nondecision time both increased significantly with age while bias towards the Go response decreased. Drift rate analyses revealed significant age-related improvements in the ability to map threat faces to a No-Go response while drift rates on all other trial types were equivalent across age groups. These results suggest that both stimulus-independent and stimulus-dependent processes contribute to improvements in inhibitory control in adolescence with processing of negative social cues being specifically impaired by self-regulatory demands. Findings from this novel investigation of emotional responsiveness integrated with inhibitory control may provide useful insights about healthy development that can be applied to better understand adolescent risk-taking behavior and the elevated incidence of related forms of psychopathology during this period of life.

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