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Brain circuit strength predicts math learning ability in children

In a new study from the Society for Neuroscience, experts have discovered that the strength of a specific brain circuit predicts a child’s ability to understand numbers. Training programs designed to target this brain circuit may improve math learning for children across a range of abilities, according to the researchers.

The intraparietal sulcus (IPS), located on the lateral surface of the parietal lobe, was known to play a a role in number processing, yet the circuit’s involvement in learning number sense was not known.

“Mathematical skill development relies on number sense, the ability to discriminate between quantities,” explained study lead author Dr. Hyesang Chang of Stanford University.

The experts conducted a four-week training program which involved mapping symbols to the amounts they represent. During the training, the researchers studied synchronized activity between the hippocampus and other brain regions in nearly 100 children between the ages of seven and ten.

The brain scans revealed that connectivity between the hippocampus and the IPS before training predicted a child’s ability to learn number sense. The children with more synchronized activity in this brain circuit were able to learn more during the course.

“Our integrated number sense training program was effective in children across a wide a range of math abilities, including children with learning difficulties,” said Dr. Chang. “We identify hippocampal-parietal circuits that predict individual differences in learning gains.”

“Our study identifies a novel brain circuit predictive of the acquistion of foundational number sense skills and delineates a robust target for effective interventions and monitoring response to cognitive training.”

According to Dr. Chang, number sense in early childhood is predictive of academic and professional success, and deficits 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.”

“Our four-week integrative number sense training program gradually strengthened the understanding of the relations between symbolic Arabic numerals and non-symbolic representations of quantity.”

“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.”

The study is published in the journal JNeurosci.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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