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Early Engagement of Parietal Cortex for Subtraction Solving Predicts Longitudinal Gains in Behavioral Fluency in Children


Suárez-Pellicioni MMacarena , Berteletti IIlaria , Booth JRJames R . Frontiers in human neuroscience. 2020 05 26; 14(). 163


There is debate in the literature regarding how single-digit arithmetic fluency is achieved over development. While the Fact-retrieval hypothesis suggests that with practice, children shift from quantity-based procedures to verbally retrieving arithmetic problems from long-term memory, the Schema-based hypothesis claims that problems are solved through quantity-based procedures and that practice leads to these procedures becoming more automatic. To test these hypotheses, a sample of 46 typically developing children underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) when they were 11 years old (time 1), and 2 years later (time 2). We independently defined regions of interest (ROIs) involved in verbal and quantity processing using rhyming and numerosity judgment localizer tasks, respectively. The verbal ROIs consisted of left middle/superior temporal gyri (MTG/STG) and left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), whereas the quantity ROIs consisted of bilateral inferior/superior parietal lobules (IPL/SPL) and bilateral middle frontal gyri (MFG)/right IFG. Participants also solved a single-digit subtraction task in the scanner. We defined the extent to which children relied on verbal vs. quantity mechanisms by selecting the 100 voxels showing maximal activation at time 1 from each ROI, separately for small and large subtractions. We studied the brain mechanisms at time 1 that predicted gains in subtraction fluency and how these mechanisms changed over time with improvement. When looking at brain activation at time 1, we found that improvers showed a larger neural problem size effect in bilateral parietal cortex, whereas no effects were found in verbal regions. Results also revealed that children who showed improvement in behavioral fluency for large subtraction problems showed decreased activation over time for large subtractions in both parietal and frontal regions implicated in quantity, whereas non-improvers maintained similar levels of activation. All children, regardless of improvement, showed decreased activation over time for large subtraction problems in verbal regions. The greater parietal problem size effect at time 1 and the reduction in activation over time for the improvers in parietal and frontal regions implicated in quantity processing is consistent with the Schema-based hypothesis arguing for more automatic procedures with increasing skill. The lack of a problem size effect at time 1 and the overall decrease in verbal regions, regardless of improvement, is inconsistent with the Fact-retrieval hypothesis.