Inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility are two key executive functions that develop in childhood and adolescence, increasing one's capacity to respond dynamically to changing external demands and refrain from impulsive behaviors. These gains evolve in concert with significant brain development. Magnetic resonance imaging studies have identified numerous frontal and cingulate cortical areas associated with performance on inhibition tasks, but less is known about the involvement of the underlying anatomical connectivity, namely white matter. Here we used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to examine correlations between a DTI-derived parameter, fractional anisotropy (FA) of white matter, and performance on the NEPSY-II Inhibition test (Naming, Inhibition and Switching conditions) in 49 healthy children aged 5-16years (20 females; 29 males). First, whole brain voxel-based analysis revealed several clusters in the frontal projections of the corpus callosum, where higher FA was associated with worse inhibitory performance, as well as several clusters in posterior brain regions and one in the brainstem where higher FA was associated with better cognitive flexibility (in the Switching task), suggesting a dichotomous relationship between FA and these two aspects of cognitive control. Tractography through these clusters identified several white matter tracts, which were then manual traced in native space. Pearson's correlations confirmed associations between higher FA of frontal projections of the corpus callosum with poorer inhibitory performance (independent of age), though associations with Switching were not significant. Post-hoc evaluation suggested that FA of orbital and anterior frontal projections of the corpus callosum also mediated performance differences across conditions, which may reflect differences in self-monitoring or strategy use. These findings suggest a link between the development of inhibition and cognitive control with that of the underlying white matter, and may help to identify deviations of neurobiology in adolescent psychopathology.
Keywords: adolescence; brain development; cognitive flexibility; corpus callosum; diffusion tensor imaging; inhibition.
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