A child’s brain activity reveals their memory ability

Summary: Activity in the frontoparietal network during memory tasks reflected the individual working memory capabilities of children, with an activity pattern unique to working memory.

Source: SfN

A child’s unique brain activity reveals how good their memories are, according to research recently published in Journal of Neuroscience.

When you scramble to remember a phone number as you enter it into your phone, you rely on your working memory to keep the number at the front of your mind. Briefly holding and manipulating information relies on the activity of the frontoparietal network, a group of brain regions coined the “cognition core.” Working memory performance changes throughout development, but can an individual’s memory facility be determined based on brain activity?

Rosenberg et al. analyzed fMRI data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) data set, a repository of scans and behavioral tests from over 11,000 children aged nine and ten.

This shows brain scans
Frontoparietal activation reflects individual working memory abilities. Image is credited to Rosenberg et al., JNeurosci 2020.

Children with better working memory performed better on a range of cognitive, language, and problem-solving tasks. Activity in the frontoparietal network during a memory task reflected the individual working memory capabilities of the children, with an activity pattern unique to working memory.

The ABCD data set will reexamine the children for ten years, allowing future studies to explore how the neural signature of working memory evolves across development.

About this neuroscience research article

Media Contacts:
Calli McMurray – SfN
Image Source:
The image is credited to Rosenberg et al., JNeurosci 2020.

Original Research: Closed access
“Behavioral and Neural Signatures of Working Memory in Childhood”. by Monica D. Rosenberg, Steven A. Martinez, Kristina M. Rapuano, May I. Conley, Alexandra O. Cohen, M. Daniela Cornejo, Donald J. Hagler Jr., Wesley J. Meredith, Kevin M. Anderson, Tor D. Wager, Eric Feczko, Eric Earl, Damien A. Fair, Deanna M. Barch, Richard Watts and BJ Casey.
Journal of Neuroscience doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2841-19.2020


Behavioral and Neural Signatures of Working Memory in Childhood

Working memory function changes across development and varies across individuals. The patterns of behavior and brain function that track individual differences in working memory during human development, however, are not well understood. Here we establish associations between working memory, cognitive abilities, and functional MRI activation in data from over 11,500 9–11-year-old children (both sexes) enrolled in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, an ongoing longitudinal study in the United States. Behavioral analyses reveal robust relationships between working memory, short-term memory, language skills, and fluid intelligence. Analyses relating out-of-scanner working memory performance to memory-related fMRI activation in an emotional n-back task demonstrate that frontoparietal activity specifically during a working memory challenge indexes working memory performance. This relationship is domain-specific, such that fMRI activation related to emotion processing during the emotional n-back task, inhibitory control during a stop-signal task, and reward processing during a monetary incentive delay task does not track memory abilities. Together these results inform our understanding of individual differences in working memory in childhood and lay the groundwork for characterizing the ways in which they change across adolescence.

Significance statement

Working memory is a foundational cognitive ability that changes over time and varies across individuals. Here we analyze data from over 11,500 9–11-year-olds to establish relationships between working memory, other cognitive abilities, and frontoparietal brain activity during a working memory challenge, but not during other cognitive challenges. Our results lay the groundwork for assessing longitudinal changes in working memory and predicting later academic and other real-world outcomes.

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