Many problem behaviors in youth have been attributed to maladaptive self-regulation in response to frustration. Frontolimbic networks that promote flexible as well as over- and undercontrolled regulation could provide evidence linking cortical mechanisms of self-regulation to the development of internalizing or externalizing symptomology. Specifically, ineffective dorsally mediated inhibitory control may be associated with rule-breaking and substance use behaviors, whereas overengagement of ventral limbic systems responsible for self-monitoring of errors may increase risk of developing anxious and depressed symptomology. In this study, a sample of 9- to 13-year-old children were presented with an emotional go/no-go task. Event-related potentials were used to identify differences in cortical mechanisms related to inhibitory control (indexed with the stimulus-locked medial frontal negativity) and self-monitoring (indexed with the error-related negativity). These measurements were then related to externalizing and internalizing behaviors. As predicted, externalizing problems were associated with smaller medial frontal negativity amplitudes, which indicate undercontrolled self-regulation and poor dorsal mediation of actions. Internalizing symptoms were related to larger error-related negativity amplitudes, demonstrating overregulation and overengagement of ventral limbic systems. These findings suggest that the use of event-related potential methodology with paradigms that elicit cognition–emotion can provide insight into the neural mechanisms of regulatory deficits that result in problem behaviors in youth.
We thank Marc D. Lewis and his lab for their extensive support and assistance on this project, as well as helpful reviews. We also thank the three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments.