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Project Number17-18-01047

Project titleEarly detection of neurocognitive giftedness in children

Project LeadArsalidou Marie

AffiliationNational Research University Higher School of Economics,

Implementation period2017 - 2019

Research area 08 - HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES, 08-555 - Developmental psychology, pedagogical psychology, correctional psychology, psychology of education

Keywordsmental-attentional capacity, giftedness, children, cognitive abilities, intelligence, cognitive development, ultrasonography, eye-tracking, fMRI, neuroimaging



Objective: Cognitive abilities improve gradually over childhood and adolescence. A small percentage of children (~5%; Mcclain & Pfeiffer, 2012) however, show exceptional cognitive abilities. These children are often referred to as cognitively gifted. Our project focuses on early detection of cognitive giftedness in children by way of mental-attentional capacity, ultrasonography, eye-tracking and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Background: Detection of cognitively gifted children abroad mainly relies on different types of intelligence tests that qualify children for advanced programs of study. In Russia, in addition to intelligence tests, parent and teacher recommendations, cognitively gifted students enter schools with advanced curriculum if they score high on domain-specific Olympiads (e.g., math, physics) usually after grade 7 at about age 13 (Grigorenko & Clinkenbeard, 1994; Karp, 2010); although some start at grade 2 at 7-8 years. Another recent method, based on the Olympiad ideal, is the program initiated by the Russian President, which allows about 600 students (10-17 years) to enter a monthly program in efforts of early detection and professional support of gifted children. Although each selection process has its strengths there are critical shortcomings related to each one. Specifically, intelligence tests mainly rely on culturally biased formal knowledge gained through schooling (e.g., vocabulary, accumulation of facts; Mcclain & Pfeiffer, 2012); teacher and parental evaluations of a student’s performance are susceptible to unconscious biases teachers and parents may have (Bandura, 1993); thus, these ratings are not truly objective; olympiad exams are generally taken by students later in adolescents, thus do not detect children early and although the special Olympiad program is a great initiative it serves only a limited number of students. According to the Russian Ministry of Education, Moscow alone has approximately 825,000 school-aged children. If 5% (Mcclain & Pfeiffer, 2012) of these children are gifted then there should be 41,250 gifted children only in Moscow. Can we identify advanced cognitive competence in children early in development using objective methods? Early detection of giftedness in children is critical for investing in their learning potential. A culture fair, objective method for assessing cognitive abilities is with parametric measures of mental-attentional capacity (Arsalidou et al., 2010; Arsalidou & Im-Bolter, 2016). Mental-attention is the maturational component of working memory, our ability to hold and manipulate information in mind. Constructivist developmental theory and empirical findings suggest that during typical development mental-attentional capacity increases by one unit every other year, after the age of three, until it reaches seven units at 15-16 years; seven is also the limit for adults (Pascual-Leone, 1970; Arsalidou, Pascual-Leone, Johnson, Kotova, under review). Research shows that children identified as gifted perform at least one unit higher on classic paper and pen measures of mental-attentional capacity compared to their same-age peers (Johnson, Im-Bolter, Pascual-Leone, 2003). Theoretically, this means that children who are gifted perform similarly to children who are one to two years older than them. Our main objective is early identification (age 7-10) of cognitively gifted children. To better understand the neurocognitive profile of cognitively gifted children we will use ultrasonography, eye tracking, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Ultrasonography data from our group show significant differences in cerebrovascular hemodynamics of adolescents with average and low cognitive abilities (Khalezov & Khalezov, 2015; Khalezov & Arsalidou, 2016). Eye tracking will be used to better understand problem-solving strategies cognitively gifted children use, because eye-movements are good indicators of where attention is focused (Graupner et al., 2011). Currently, there is no eye tracking study to date with gifted children. Similarly, there are a limited number of fMRI studies on gifted development, which mainly focus on adolescents (aged 13-18 years) with high math abilities (e.g., O’Boyle et al., 2005; Hoppe et al., 2012). Because of lack of proper parametric measures in cognitive developmental neuroscience (Kotsoni et al., 2006), no study to date has used fMRI to study young gifted children ages 9-10 years. This project is organized in three main studies (A) Screening Study – Identification of cognitively gifted children using mental-attentional capacity measures, (B) Profiling study – Creating a neurocognitive profile of cognitively gifted children versus controls using measures of executive function, motivation and strategy use, and (C) fMRI Study - Identify brain responses of cognitively gifted children versus control children. Method: We will test children attending schools with regular and advance curriculum in Moscow, and will identify the children who perform two stages above their same-age peers. We will focus on children in early grades aged 7-10 years (N = ~2000), however, for a developmental sample we will also test 10 to 16 year-olds. All children will be tested with mental-attentional capacity measures and will undergo a short brain ultrasonography exam. Children (7-10 years) who score two stages above their same age peers on two of the three computerized mental-attentional capacity test will be classified as cognitively gifted; we expect that 5-10% of our total sample (N = ~200) will pass this giftedness criterion. Cognitively gifted children and a control group who did not perform above average will be tested further using a battery of tests on motivation, executive function, intelligence and strategy use. A subset of these children (N = 20 per group) will also be invited to participate in an fMRI study to identify brain responses of cognitively gifted children versus same-age peers on mental-attentional capacity. Novelty: This project has a series of studies that have several innovative aspects. It is the first project worldwide that will combine ultrasonography, eye-tracking, fMRI and mental-attentional capacity measures in school-aged children. It will also be the first fMRI study to examine brain responses of cognitively gifted children on parametric measures mental-attentional capacity. Lastly, this will be the first study to examine the relation of cerebrovascular hemodynamics recorded with ultrasonography and cognitive abilities in a very large sample of typically developing children. We believe that results of this work will have significant impact practically and theoretically in the early detection of cognitive giftedness in children. Importantly, our fundamental project will contribute to Russia’s National Priority of Quality Education – because early identification is critical for providing cognitively gifted students with well-timed quality education. The Russian education system is arguably one of the best in the world and our ultimate goal is to create a Russian center of excellence that creates research-based knowledge for identifying and supporting the needs of cognitively gifted children. This project can serve as the basis for a longitudinal study that will provide a follow-up for these cognitively gifted students in later years. In our efforts to make this possible we already collaborate with national and international educators, researchers and clinicians and will make our research finding publicly accessible.

Expected results
We anticipate that we will have three main sets of results from the (1) Screening, (2) Profiling, and (3) fMRI Studies. First, during the Screening Study we will test a large number of school-aged children with a battery of mental-attentional capacity measures and ultrasound. Results from mental-attentional capacity measures will identify the groups of cognitively gifted children and control children to be studied further. This step will have significant practical and theoretical impact. Practically it will: (a) contribute to rigorous methodological practices for early detection of gifted children, and (b) establish indices of cerebrovascular hemodynamics and their relation to mental-attentional capacity in children, which will have important social significance for educators, parents and clinicians. Theoretically, the Screening Study will inform theories of cognitive development and giftedness on screening methods of early detection of advanced cognitive abilities. Second, the Profiling Study will evaluate in detail executive functions (i.e., inhibition, shifting, updating), intelligence, motivation and strategy use in cognitively gifted children compared to their same-age peers. This will be the first study worldwide to examine cognitively gifted children with eye tracking. The Profiling Study will provide important theoretical contributions on the cognitive and socio-emotional profile of gifted children. Practically, knowledge from this study will be beneficial for parents, educators, psychologists and policy makers (e.g., stakeholders of the sochisirius program) who aim to constructively support and further the development of gifted children. Specifically, public schools can use a computerized battery of mental-attentional capacity measures that would not only indicate whether the competence level of the child is significantly above average but also it would indicate the competence level the child is performing. For instance, if a 7-8 year old, who theoretically should be able to hold and manipulate 3 items in mind, scores a 4 or a 5, then we can conclude that this child has a competence level of 9-10 (scoring at 4) or 11-12 (scoring at 6) year old. Such knowledge can help with better planning the education of these students; one method may be specialized course work for individual students and another may be to offer the student to advance to the next grade. Either method would help cognitively gifted students develop more effectively. Lastly, the fMRI study will be the first worldwide to examine brain correlates of cognitively gifted children aged 9-10 years on a subset of cognitively gifted and control children. Scientifically and theoretically, the fMRI will contribute new insight to our understanding of giftedness at an early age and inform theories of giftedness and cognitive development. Practically, findings will contribute to establishing methodology for creating neurocognitive profiles for gifted children. This is important because only when we properly identify a child’s cognitive competence level can we attempt to provide child-driven targeted education. Overall, we highlight the social significance of this work, outside the academic sphere. It is fundamental for parents, educators, and clinicians to have access to new research findings. Thus, in addition to publishing this work to open-access peer-reviewed scientific journals, we aim is to make knowledge gained easily accessible to the community via conference presentations, invited talks, and through appropriate websites. Examples include: Scientific Journals: Developmental Science (Impact Factor: 3.982) Child Development (Impact Factor: 4.235) Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (Impact Factor: 4.570) Cerebral Cortex: (Impact Factor: 8.285) NeuroImage: (Impact Factor: 5.463) Human Brain Mapping: (Impact Factor: 4.962) Conferences: Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD: Meeting of the Cognitive Development Society ( Meeting of National Association for Gifted Children ( Meeting of Cognitive Science ( Meeting of Virtual Laboratory of Cognitive Science (



Annotation of the results obtained in 2017
Parents and educators experience first hand remarkable improvements in their children’s cognitive abilities over the school age years. Most children start school knowing simple number facts and letters and finish school being able to solve complex math problems and read and write stories. The potential of the brain to learn and mature over a period of several years is fascinating. Classic psychologists have devised many ways to measure academic competences and intelligence; however, these tests are often culturally biased, require domain specific training or can be administered only to older children. One way to measure cognitive competence in a culture-fair manner that does not require extensive prior training and can be administer to younger children is by way of parametric measures of mental-attentional capacity. Mental-attention corresponds to the amount of information one can hold and manipulate in mind. This is a limited resource that gradually increases with age. Parametric measures of mental-attentional capacity, which we often call cognitive games, use simple concepts such as colours, shapes and numbers, to generate multiple levels of difficulty. Importantly, the rules of these games remain constant (e.g., “are the colours the same or different”) across all levels of difficulty. For example, the number of colours can change from 1 to 6 relevant colours and a child has to indicate whether the colours are the same or different regardless of the number of colours. By keeping the concepts and the rules simple we can manipulate the complexity of the task by changing the amount of information to be processed. On average, typically developing children experience a unit increase in their mental attentional capacity every other year; starting from 3-4 years with 1 unit, 5-6 years 2 units, 7-8 years 3 units, 9-10 years 4 units, 11-12 years 5 units, 13-14 years 6 units and finishing with 7 units at age 15-16 years. Seven units is also the mental-attentional capacity limit for adults. Critically, a small percentage of children, about 5%, significantly outperform their peers to show outstanding performance. A purpose of our research is to find improved methods of identifying advanced cognitive competence in younger children and better understand the neurocognitive foundations of their performance. Over the past year, the Institutional Review Board of HSE has approved all our methods. Participation in our study is absolutely voluntary. To work with children we first contact the School Principals. When Principals evaluate the project and are interested in our research we talk to teachers and parents; some more information for parents can be found here ( Interested parents are asked to provide written consent form. Only children whose parents provide written consent form are asked to participate in our study. We are collecting data in several schools in Moscow and are very grateful to all Principals, School Psychologists, Educators, Parents and children who help us in this journey for knowledge. We have tested children with measures of mental attentional capacity and ultrasound. Preliminary data show that on average children’s performance follows theoretically predicted levels, such that children in grade 2 who are 7-8 years old can successfully hold and manipulate 3 units for information in mind, whereas children in grade 4, who are 9-10 years old can successfully hold and manipulate 4 units of information in mind. Ultrasound is a non-invasive technique that produces pictures of the inside of the body using sound waves. We use ultrasound to measure parameters related to blood vessels that supply the with blood different parts of the brain. For example, we measure how fast the blood in flowing in vessels in the left and right hemispheres in the brain. Our preliminary results show that there are differences in blood velocity in vessels that supply the left and right hemispheres in children ages 7 to 10 years. We will continue to analyze our data to better understand individual differences related to advanced cognitive performance. We are interested in understanding both cognitive and emotional processes associated with brain maturation. To better understand these abilities we performed a series of meta-analyses of previously published functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies. For example, we examined which brain areas are associated with processing numbers and solving mathematical problems in children and adults. We also examined brain areas associated with cognitive phenomena and complex decision making in adults that may help us better understand how these processes develop in children. Again, our research would not be possible without the generous support of Principals, Educators, Parents and children in our participating Schools. Next year we will continue to recruit more Schools in Moscow and other regions in Russia. If you are a Principal and are interested for your school to participate please feel free to contact us directly. For more information about our team please visit:



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