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Review
. 2014 Oct;10:57-76.
doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2014.07.009. Epub 2014 Aug 12.

Development of Abstract Thinking During Childhood and Adolescence: The Role of Rostrolateral Prefrontal Cortex

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Free PMC article
Review

Development of Abstract Thinking During Childhood and Adolescence: The Role of Rostrolateral Prefrontal Cortex

Iroise Dumontheil. Dev Cogn Neurosci. .
Free PMC article

Abstract

Rostral prefrontal cortex (RPFC) has increased in size and changed in terms of its cellular organisation during primate evolution. In parallel emerged the ability to detach oneself from the immediate environment to process abstract thoughts and solve problems and to understand other individuals' thoughts and intentions. Rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC) is thought to play an important role in supporting the integration of abstract, often self-generated, thoughts. Thoughts can be temporally abstract and relate to long term goals, or past or future events, or relationally abstract and focus on the relationships between representations rather than simple stimulus features. Behavioural studies have provided evidence of a prolonged development of the cognitive functions associated with RLPFC, in particular logical and relational reasoning, but also episodic memory retrieval and prospective memory. Functional and structural neuroimaging studies provide further support for a prolonged development of RLPFC during adolescence, with some evidence of increased specialisation of RLPFC activation for relational integration and aspects of episodic memory retrieval. Topics for future research will be discussed, such as the role of medial RPFC in processing abstract thoughts in the social domain, the possibility of training abstract thinking in the domain of reasoning, and links to education.

Keywords: Adolescence; Brodmann area 10; Cognitive control; Frontopolar cortex; Prefrontal cortex; Reasoning.

Figures

Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Sub-divisions of the frontal lobes. (a) Schematic representation of the major anatomical sub-divisions of the frontal lobes. Following a caudal to rostral direction, labelled areas include motor cortex, dorsal and ventral premotor cortices, dorsal and ventral aspects of anterior premotor cortex, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and lateral frontopolar cortex, also termed rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC). Boundaries and Brodmann areas (BA) are approximate. (b) Schematic representation of the rostro-caudal gradiant of the organisation of the prefrontal cortex. The consensus among diverse theoretical accounts of the organisation of the PFC is that progressively more anterior PFC regions support cognitive control of progressively more abstract and temporally extended representations (adapted from Badre, 2008).
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Development of the flexible switching between selecting thoughts derived from the environment and abstract thoughts. (a) Alphabet task. Participants classify letters of the alphabet according to their shape (line or curve). When the letter is red, participants judge the letter presented on the screen (stimulus-oriented (SO) blocks). When the letter is blue (or when there is no letter) participants continue reciting the alphabet in their head and judge the shape of the letter in their head (stimulus-independent (SI) blocks), while ignoring the distracting letter presented on the screen (Distractor condition), or in the absence of a letter on the screen (No-distractor condition). Performance in the two types of blocks (SI vs. SO) and the two conditions (Distractor vs. No-distractor), and performance in switch trials (first trial of a SO or SI block) and subsequent trials (stay trials) were compared. (b) Behavioural results. The speed of responding in SI vs. SO, and in switch vs. stay trials continued to increase during adolescence. The speed of responding in the presence of Distractors also improved but followed a flatter linear developmental function (adapted from Dumontheil et al., 2010b). (c) Functional MRI results. The main effect of switching between SO and SI conditions vs. a simple change of colour of the stimuli over the whole age range is presented (family-wise error corrected p < .05), highlighting the right superior RLPFC activation (top). RLPFC activity in this contrast is plotted against age (bottom). There was a significant decrease in activity during adolescence, which was not purely a consequence of differences in performance and brain structure between the participants and could reflect the maturation of neurocognitive strategies (see Dumontheil et al., 2010b). (For interpretation of the references to colour in this figure legend, the reader is referred to the web version of this article.)
Fig. 3
Fig. 3
Increased specificity of left RLPFC activation for relational integration (2nd order vs. 1st order relational processing) during development. Although the three studies summarised here used slightly different tasks, methods and age groups, the overall pattern shows an increased specificity of left RLPFC activation, in particular between late childhood and mid-adolescence. (a) RLPFC activation observed in adult (N = 17, age 18–25) and children (N = 15, age 8–12) performing problems following the general form of the Raven Progressive Matrices test (Raven, 1998), with a varying number of dimensions to be integrated. On the left are shown activations related to 1st order relational processing (REL-1 > REL-0) and relational integration (REL-2 > REL-1) in adults (p < .001 uncorrected) and children (p < .005 uncorrected) in the 8–16 s interval of a timecourse analysis. On the right are plotted the timecourses of activation from left RLPFC regions of interset in adults and children. In the later part of the timecourses, there was a significant interaction between age group and condition (grey highlight), with activations greater in REL-2 than REL-1 in adults, and greater in REL-1 than REL-0 in children (adapted from Crone et al., 2009). (b) Left RLPFC activation observed in three groups of children and adolescents (total N = 85) performing a task requiring 1st or 2nd order visuospatial relational processing. Analyses using age as a continuous variable show a significant decrease in left RLPFC associated with 1st-order relational processing only, resulting in a significant age × condition interaction (adapted from Wendelken et al., 2011). (c) Left hemisphere activation observed in a group of adult (N = 13, age 22–30) and adolescent (N = 24, age 11–18) participants performing a similar task to (b). In the left RLPFC, Relational > Control activation, i.e. that specific to 2nd vs. 1st order relational processing, increased marginally between early and mid-adolescence (#), while it decreased between mid-adolescence and adulthood (*) (adapted from Dumontheil et al., 2010a, Dumontheil et al., 2010b, Dumontheil et al., 2010c).
Fig. 4
Fig. 4
Developmental changes in RLPFC activation during episodic memory tasks. (a) Neural correlates of episodic memory retrieval. Top left: increased activation with age associated with hit trials compared to trials with correctly rejected semantically unrelated lures; top right: increased activation with age associated with trials where a semantically related (critical) lure vs. an unrelated lure is correctly identified; bottom: region of interest analysis suggesting that in adults right RLPFC is involved in the monitoring of performance during episodic memory retrieval, with greater activation associated to correctly recognised semantically relevant items (hits or critical lures). CR: correct rejections; FA: false alarms; aPFC: anterior prefrontal cortex (adapted from Paz-Alonso et al., 2008). (b) Region of interest analysis of left RLPFC activation during source memory retrieval. The condition × age group interaction was significant, revealing increased RLPFC activation for increasingly amount of recollected information (correct border = both drawing and colour were remembered (source memory); incorrect border = the drawing but not its border colour was remembered (item memory); Miss = error trial; correct rejection = drawing correctly identified as not presented before) in the adults, but not the children, who showed similar RLPFC recruitment across trial types (adapted from DeMaster and Ghetti, 2013). (c) Region of interest analysis of left RLPFC activation during source memory retrieval. The condition × age group interaction was significant, revealing increased RLPFC activation for increasingly amount of recollected information (correct spatial recall = both drawing and its location were remembered (source memory); incorrect spatial recall = the drawing but not its location was remembered (item memory); Miss = error trial; correct rejection = drawing correctly identified as not presented before) in the adults, with a difference between source and item memory in the 10–11-year olds, but activation for item memory only for the 8–9-year olds (adapted from DeMaster et al., 2013).

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