Learning and altering behaviours by reinforcement: Neurocognitive differences between children and adults
Jackson, Georgina M.
Groom, Madeleine J.
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This study examined neurocognitive differences between children and adults in the ability to learn and adapt simple stimulus-response associations through feedback. Fourteen typically developing children (mean age=10.2) and 15 healthy adults (mean age=25.5) completed a simple task in which they learned to associate visually presented stimuli with manual responses based on performance feedback (acquisition phase), and then reversed and re-learned those associations following an unexpected change in reinforcement contingencies (reversal phase). Electrophysiological activity was recorded throughout task performance. We found no group differences in learning-related changes in performance (reaction time, accuracy) or in the amplitude of event-related potentials (ERPs) associated with stimulus processing (P3 ERP) or feedback processing (feedback-related negativity; FRN) during the acquisition phase. However, children's performance was significantly more disrupted by the reversal than adults and FRN amplitudes were significantly modulated by the reversal phase in children but not adults. These findings indicate that children have specific difficulties with reinforcement learning when acquired behaviours must be altered. This may be caused by the added demands on immature executive functioning, specifically response monitoring, created by the requirement to reverse the associations, or a developmental difference in the way in which children and adults approach reinforcement learning. Copyright © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.. All rights reserved.