Summary: The strength of the connection between the hippocampus and the intraparietal sulcus predicts a child’s ability to learn number sense and mathematics.
The strength of a brain circuit predicts the ability of children to learn math, according to research recently published in Journal of Neuroscience.
Tutoring regimes designed to target the circuit may improve learning outcomes for children across a range of abilities.
Before children can learn to add and subtract, they must learn which abstract symbol, like “4” or “6,” represents which quantity, a skill also known as number sense.
Researchers know the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) plays a role in number processing but didn’t know the brain circuits involved in learning number sense.
Chang et al. developed a four-week number sense training program and identified brain circuits which drive learning in elementary school-aged children. The training emphasized mapping abstract number symbols to the non-abstract quantities they represent, rather than simple fact memorization.
The researchers examined synchronized activity between the hippocampus, an area involved in learning and memory, and other brain areas.
The connection between the hippocampus and the IPS before training predicted a child’s ability to learn number sense: children with more synchronized activity learned more during the course.
This relationship held true for typically developing children as well as children with mathematical learning difficulties.
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Foundational number sense training gains are predicted by hippocampal–parietal circuits
The development of mathematical skills in early childhood relies on number sense, the foundational ability to discriminate between quantities. Number sense in early childhood is predictive of academic and professional success, and deficits in number sense are thought to underlie lifelong impairments in mathematical abilities.
Despite its importance, the brain circuit mechanisms that support number sense learning remain poorly understood.
Here, we designed a theoretically motivated training program to determine brain circuit mechanisms underlying foundational number sense learning in female and male elementary school-aged children (ages 7-10).
Our four-week integrative number sense training program gradually strengthened the understanding of the relations between symbolic (Arabic numerals) and non-symbolic (sets of items) representations of quantity.
We found that our number sense training program improved symbolic quantity discrimination ability in children across a wide a range of math abilities including those with learning difficulties.
Crucially, the strength of pre-training functional connectivity between the hippocampus and intraparietal sulcus, brain regions implicated in associative learning and quantity discrimination, respectively, predicted individual differences in number sense learning across typically developing children and children with learning difficulties.
Reverse meta-analysis of inter-regional co-activations across 14,371 fMRI studies and 89 cognitive functions confirmed a reliable role for hippocampal–intraparietal-sulcus circuits in learning. Our study identifies a canonical hippocampal–parietal circuit for learning which plays a foundational role in children’s cognitive skill acquisition.
Findings provide important insights into neurobiological circuit markers of individual differences in children’s learning and delineate a robust target for effective cognitive interventions.