Development of common neural representations for distinct numerical problems

Neuropsychologia. 2015 Aug;75:481-95. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.07.005. Epub 2015 Jul 6.

Abstract

How the brain develops representations for abstract cognitive problems is a major unaddressed question in neuroscience. Here we tackle this fundamental question using arithmetic problem solving, a cognitive domain important for the development of mathematical reasoning. We first examined whether adults demonstrate common neural representations for addition and subtraction problems, two complementary arithmetic operations that manipulate the same quantities. We then examined how the common neural representations for the two problem types change with development. Whole-brain multivoxel representational similarity (MRS) analysis was conducted to examine common coding of addition and subtraction problems in children and adults. We found that adults exhibited significant levels of MRS between the two problem types, not only in the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) region of the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), but also in ventral temporal-occipital, anterior temporal and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices. Relative to adults, children showed significantly reduced levels of MRS in these same regions. In contrast, no brain areas showed significantly greater MRS between problem types in children. Our findings provide novel evidence that the emergence of arithmetic problem solving skills from childhood to adulthood is characterized by maturation of common neural representations between distinct numerical operations, and involve distributed brain regions important for representing and manipulating numerical quantity. More broadly, our findings demonstrate that representational analysis provides a powerful approach for uncovering fundamental mechanisms by which children develop proficiencies that are a hallmark of human cognition.

Keywords: Arithmetic; Dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex; Fusiform gyrus; Intraparietal sulcus; Multivoxel representational similarity; Problem solving; Representational similarity analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Mathematical Concepts*
  • Problem Solving / physiology*
  • Young Adult