Developmental changes in category-specific brain responses to numbers and letters in a working memory task

Neuroimage. 2009 Feb 15;44(4):1404-14. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.10.027. Epub 2008 Nov 5.


Neuroimaging studies have identified a common network of brain regions involving the prefrontal and parietal cortices across a variety of working memory (WM) tasks. However, previous studies have also reported category-specific dissociations of activation within this network. In this study, we investigated the development of category-specific activation in a WM task with digits, letters, and faces. Eight-year-old children and adults performed a 2-back WM task while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Overall, children were significantly slower and less accurate than adults on all three WM conditions (digits, letters, and faces); however, within each age group, behavioral performance across the three conditions was very similar. FMRI results revealed category-specific activation in adults but not children in the intraparietal sulcus for the digit condition. Likewise, during the letter condition, category-specific activation was observed in adults but not children in the left occipital-temporal cortex. In contrast, children and adults showed highly similar brain-activity patterns in the lateral fusiform gyri when solving the 2-back WM task with face stimuli. Our results suggest that 8-year-old children do not yet engage the typical brain regions that have been associated with abstract or semantic processing of numerical symbols and letters when these processes are task-irrelevant and the primary task is demanding. Nevertheless, brain activity in letter-responsive areas predicted children's spelling performance underscoring the relationship between abstract processing of letters and linguistic abilities. Lastly, behavioral performance on the WM task was predictive of math and language abilities highlighting the connection between WM and other cognitive abilities in development.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Adult
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Young Adult