Human cognitive development is manifold, with different functions developing at different speeds at different ages. Attention is an important domain of this cognitive development, and involves distinct developmental trajectories in separate functions, including conflict processing, selection of sensory input and alertness. In children, several studies using the Attention Network Test (ANT) have investigated the development of three attentional networks that carry out the functions of executive control, orienting and alerting. There is, however, a lack of studies on the development of these attentional components across adolescence, limiting our understanding of their protracted development. To fill this knowledge gap, we performed a mixed cross-sectional and longitudinal study using mixed methods to examine the development of the attentional components and their intraindividual variability from late childhood to young adulthood (n = 287, n observations = 408, age range = 8.5-26.7 years, mean follow up interval = 4.4 years). The results indicated that executive control stabilized during late adolescence, while orienting and alerting continued to develop into young adulthood. In addition, a continuous development into young adulthood was observed for the intraindividual variability measures of orienting and alerting. In a subsample with available magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data (n =169, n observations = 281), higher alerting scores were associated with thicker cortices within a right prefrontal cortical region and greater age-related cortical thinning in left rolandic operculum, while higher orienting scores were associated with greater age-related cortical thinning in frontal and parietal regions. Finally, increased consistency of orienting performance was associated with thinner cortex in prefrontal regions and reduced age-related thinning in frontal regions.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience