Development of abstract thinking during childhood and adolescence: the role of rostrolateral prefrontal cortex

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


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.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Humans
  • Logic
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Memory / physiology
  • Neuroimaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Thinking / physiology*