Executive function is an area of growing research at the Boys Town Child and Family Translational Research Center (TRC) with three very active research studies currently underway. Executive function refers to the mental processes related to controlling thought and action.
By the teenage years, executive function is comprised of three abilities: working memory, inhibitory control, and flexible shifting. Working memory allows children to process and hold new information, and then to transfer new information from short-term memory to long-term memory for use later. Children with working memory issues may have a hard time remembering the steps involved in getting ready for school or struggle with remembering information from class. Inhibitory control allows children to control their impulses and choose an appropriate response. Children with inhibitory control issues may have difficulty managing frustration, leading to outbursts. Finally, flexible shifting allows children to problem solve and shift their attention in helpful ways. Children with flexible shifting issues may have a difficult time with changing tasks or learning new skills. Teenagers with inhibitory control issues may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors like using substances.
The TRC is currently involved in three federally funded studies focused on executive function. Dr. Irina Patwardhan, a research scientist at the TRC, was recently awarded a $100,000 grant for two years by the National Institutes of Health to study executive function as it relates to conduct problems and depression/anxiety in elementary school children. The goal of this project is to identify school and family protective factors that reduce the negative consequences of poor executive function for behavioral and emotional problems.
Dr. W. Alex Mason, Senior Director of the TRC, was awarded a $3 million grant for five years by the National Institute of Drug Administration and is working on a study to examine the development of executive function and adolescent substance use. The study follows a group of children from ages three to six years old who are now reaching adolescence. The goal of this project is to gain a better understanding of how poor executive function development is related to the onset and continued use of substances during the teen years.
Dr. Tim Nelson, at the University of Nebraska Lincoln's Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, and Dr. Mason are also serving as Co-Investigators on a study. This $2.5 million grant is a five-year project examining poor executive control in childhood as a contributor to the development of adolescent obesity and physical inactivity.
The research studies mentioned above are designed to help explain executive control. After the studies are done, the TRC will then work with our practitioners to design new approaches and conduct additional research to test their effectiveness. For example, the results of these projects could aid practitioners in developing new interventions to help prevent substance abuse or increase overall health and wellness in children by improving executive function. This information can then be shared with parents, educators, and other professional to advance child-rearing practices.
Through these efforts, the TRC builds research knowledge and promotes Boys Town's mission by helping to improve the way America cares for children and families.