Common and distinct brain regions in both parietal and frontal cortex support symbolic and nonsymbolic number processing in humans: A functional neuroimaging meta-analysis

Neuroimage. 2017 Feb 1:146:376-394. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.10.028. Epub 2016 Oct 18.


In recent years, there has been substantial growth in neuroimaging studies investigating neural correlates of symbolic (e.g. Arabic numerals) and non-symbolic (e.g. dot arrays) number processing. At present it remains contested whether number is represented abstractly, or if number representations in the brain are format-dependent. In order to quantitatively evaluate the available neuroimaging evidence, we used activation likelihood estimation (ALE) to conduct quantitative meta-analyses of the results reported in 57 neuroimaging papers. Consistent with the existence of an abstract representation of number in the brain, conjunction analyses revealed overlapping activation for symbolic and nonsymbolic numbers in frontal and parietal lobes. Consistent with the notion of format-dependent activation, contrast analyses demonstrated anatomically distinct fronto-parietal activation for symbolic and non-symbolic processing. Therefore, symbolic and non-symbolic numbers are subserved by format-dependent and abstract neural systems. Moreover, the present results suggest that regions across the parietal cortex, not just the intraparietal sulcus, are engaged in both symbolic and non-symbolic number processing, challenging the notion that the intraparietal sulcus is the key region for number processing. Additionally, our analyses indicate that regions in the frontal cortex subserve magnitude representations rather than non-numerical cognitive processes associated with number tasks, thereby highlighting the importance of considering both frontal and parietal regions as important for number processing.

Keywords: Activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis; Frontal cortex; Nonsymbolic number; Parietal cortex; Symbolic number.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Male
  • Mathematical Concepts*
  • Neuroimaging
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology*
  • Young Adult

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