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Perlman et al.

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fNIRS evidence of prefrontal regulation of frustration in early childhood
Perlman SB, Luna B, Hein TC, Huppert TJ

Frustration is a common experience in early childhood, yet its neural mechanisms have rarely been studied. A project by Dr. Susan Perlman and her colleagues investigated the neural substrate of frustration in children aged 3 to 5 years old. Children in the study were assessed using functional near infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS to measure brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. This method of optical imaging is an excellent option for children of a young age due to its interactiveness and ability to handle head movement. Once the children were fitted with a custom designed fNIRS cap, they played a game on a touch-screen computer in which a desired prize was “stolen” by an animated dog, creating a frustrating situation for the child. In addition to the non-invasive fNIRS imaging, the research team administered a parent/guardian questionnaire to assess each child’s temperament. The observed sample consisted of 22 children, all with no reported physical or psychiatric disorders. However, even within this typical sample, there was a range of tolerance to frustration, allowing the researchers to study a spectrum of temperament. The study team found increased activation of the lateral prefrontal cortex during periods of frustration. Further, the more easily frustrated parents rated their children, the greater the activation of the prefrontal cortex, possibly implicating a greater need to regulate emotion during a blocked goal.

Tolerance for frustrating situations in early childhood is often linked to difficulty adapting to new circumstances and to an increased risk for psychiatric disorders. Understanding the physiological basis for decreased frustration tolerance is an important step toward examining the relationship among irritable temperaments, development of the prefrontal cortex, and the appearance of psychiatric disorders later in life.

Contributors:
Susan B. Perlman, PhD; Beatriz Luna, PhD; Tyler C. Hein (Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh); Theodore J. Huppert, PhD (Department of Radiology, University of Pittsburgh)

The results of this investigation were published in NeuroImage. Click here for a link to the abstract.