Training can induce significant changes in brain functioning and behavioral performance. One consequence of training is changing the pattern of brain activation. Abacus training is of interest because abacus experts gain the ability to handle digits with unusual speed and accuracy. However, the neural correlates of numerical memory in abacus-trained children remain unknown. In the current study, we aimed to detect a training effect of abacus-based mental calculations on numerical working memory in children. We measured brain functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) activation patterns in 17 abacus-trained children and 17 control children as they performed two numerical working memory tasks (digits and beads). Functional MRI results revealed higher activation in abacus-trained children than in the controls in the right posterior superior parietal lobule/superior occipital gyrus (PSPL/SOG) and the right supplementary motor area (SMA) in both tasks. When these regions were used as seeds in a functional connectivity analysis of the resting brain, the abacus-trained children showed significantly enhanced integration between the right SMA and the right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). The IFG is considered to be the key region for the control of attention. These findings demonstrate that extensive engagement of the fronto-parietal network occurs during numerical memory tasks in the abacus-trained group. Furthermore, abacus training may increase the functional integration of visuospatial-attention circuitry, which and thus enhances high-level cognitive process.
Keywords: Abacus mental imagery; Attentional control; Fronto-parietal network; Resting-state functional connectivity; fMRI.
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