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Kids' brains reorganize as they learn new things, study shows

arithmeticWhy do some children pick up on arithmetic much more easily than others? New Stanford findings from the first longitudinal brain-scanning study of kids solving math problems are shedding light on this question. The work gives interesting insight into how a child's brain builds itself while also absorbing, storing and using new information. It turns out that the hippocampus, already known as a memory center, plays a key role in this construction project.

Published this week in Nature Neuroscience, the research focuses on what's happening in the brain as children shift from counting on their fingers to the more efficient strategy of pulling math facts directly from memory. To conduct the study, the research team collected two sets of magnetic resonance imaging scans, about a year apart, on a group of grade-schoolers. From our press release:

“We wanted to understand how children acquire new knowledge, and determine why some children learn to retrieve facts from memory better than others,” said Vinod Menon, PhD, the Rachel L. and Walter F. Nichols, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and the senior author of the study. “This work provides insight into the dynamic changes that occur over the course of cognitive development in each child.”

The study also adds to prior research into the differences between how children’s and adults’ brains solve math problems. Children use certain brain regions, including the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, very differently from adults when the two groups are solving the same types of math problems, the study showed.

“It was surprising to us that the hippocampal and prefrontal contributions to memory-based problem-solving during childhood don’t look anything like what we would have expected for the adult brain,” said postdoctoral scholar Shaozheng Qin, PhD, who is the paper’s lead author.

The study found that as children aged from an average of 8.2 to 9.4 years, they counted less and pulled facts from memory more when solving math problems. Over the same period, the hippocampus became more active and forged new connections with other parts of the brain, particularly several regions of the neocortex. But comparison groups of adolescents and adults were found on brain scans not to be making much use of the hippocampus when solving math problems. In other words, Menon told me, "The hippocampus is providing a scaffold for learning and consolidating facts into long-term memory in children." And the stronger the scaffold of connections in an individual child, the more readily he or she pulled math facts from memory.

Now that the scientists have a baseline understanding of how this brain-building process normally works, they hope to run similar brain-scanning tests on children with math learning disabilities, with the aim of understanding what goes awry in the brains of children who really struggle with math.

Previously: Unusual brain organization found in autistic kids who best peers at math, Peering into the brain to predict kids' responses to math tutoring and New research tracks "math anxiety" in the brain
Photo by Yannis

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