New Cognitive Flexibility Model May Shed Light on Autism

A new model may help researchers better understand a key function that affects autism and other behavioral and neurological disorders.

Researchers from the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences in Coral Gables, Fla., have broken down the concept of cognitive flexibility into four component parts that must work together to create cognitive flexibility: salience detection/attention or the ability to direct attention to behaviorally relevant events, working memory, inhibition or the ability to stop old responses when they no longer apply, and switching from one task to another.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift thoughts and adapt behavior to ones environment as it changes. Most commonly measured by task shifting, it is a vital skill for executive functioning. Higher cognitive flexibility is associated with higher resilience, creativity, and quality of life. Those with certain neurological and behavioral disorders demonstrate diminished cognitive flexibility.

Dina R. Dajani, a PhD student in psychology and first author of the paper and Lucina Q. Uddin, PhD, analyzed existing literature and neuroimaging studies on cognitive flexibility to tease out the key components and look for changes in connectivity between brain regions, compared with healthy individuals, that may affect cognitive flexibility. Such knowledge, they suggest, may help researchers design better interventions to improve cognitive flexibility skills.

"Our concept is quite different from other conceptualizations of cognitive flexibility because we describe it as arising from four separate cognitive operations, whereas other researchers have described it as a manifestation of a single cognitive operation," Dajani said in a news release. "This novel hypothesis may help our understanding of this complex ability." Abstract:

The researchers are now using functional neuroimaging to test the "four components" cognitive flexibility hypothesis.