Experts of abacus, who have the skills of abacus-based mental calculation (AMC), are able to manipulate numbers via an imagined abacus in mind and demonstrate extraordinary ability in mental calculation. Behavioral studies indicated that abacus experts utilize visual strategy in solving numerical problems, and fMRI studies confirmed the enhanced involvement of visuospatial-related neural resources in AMC. This study aims to explore the possible changes in brain white matter induced by long-term training of AMC. Two matched groups participated: the abacus group consisting of 25 children with over 3-year training in abacus calculation and AMC, the controls including 25 children without any abacus experience. We found that the abacus group showed higher average fractional anisotropy (FA) in whole-brain fiber tracts, and the regions with increased FA were found in corpus callosum, left occipitotemporal junction and right premotor projection. No regions, however, showed decreased FA in the abacus group. Further analysis revealed that the differences in FA values were mainly driven by the alternation of radial rather than axial diffusivities. Furthermore, in forward digit and letter memory span tests, AMC group showed larger digit/letter memory spans. Interestingly, individual differences in white matter tracts were found positively correlated with the memory spans, indicating that the widespread increase of FA in the abacus group result possibly from the AMC training. In conclusion, our findings suggested that long-term AMC training from an early age may improve the memory capacity and enhance the integrity in white matter tracts related to motor and visuospatial processes.
Hum Brain Mapp, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.