Effects of problem size and arithmetic operation on brain activation during calculation in children with varying levels of arithmetical fluency

Neuroimage. 2011 Aug 1;57(3):771-81. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.12.037. Epub 2010 Dec 21.


Most studies on mathematics learning in the field of educational neuroscience have focused on the neural correlates of very elementary numerical processing skills in children. Little is known about more complex mathematical skills that are formally taught in school, such as arithmetic. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the present study investigated how brain activation during single-digit addition and subtraction is modulated by problem size and arithmetic operation in 28 children aged 10-12 years with different levels of arithmetical fluency. Commensurate with adult data, large problems and subtractions activated a fronto-parietal network, including the intraparietal sulci, the latter of which indicates the influence of quantity-based processes during procedural strategy execution. Different from adults, the present findings revealed that particularly the left hippocampus was active during the solution of those problems that are expected to be solved by means of fact retrieval (i.e. small problems and addition), suggesting a specific role of the hippocampus in the early stages of learning arithmetic facts. Children with low levels of arithmetical fluency showed higher activation in the right intraparietal sulcus during the solution of problems with a relatively small problem size, indicating that they continued to rely to a greater extent on quantity-based strategies on those problems that the children with relatively higher arithmetical fluency already retrieved from memory. This might represent a neural correlate of fact retrieval impairments in children with mathematical difficulties.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Mathematical Concepts*