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Brain Study Gives a Peek at Move From Problem-Solving to Fact-Finding in Math

Cross-posted from Curriculum Matters.

As children make the transition from finger-counting to retrieving math facts from memory, their brains begin to change, according to a study published this week in Nature Neuroscience. The findings could offer clues about how such processes break down for students with math learning disabilities. 

The study, out of the Stanford University School of Medicine, used brain-imaging to show that the hippocampus becomes more active, and more strongly connected to other parts of the brain, as children move to memory-based problem solving. Fluent math-fact retrieval is a predictor of later math achievement, the Stanford Medicine News Center notes

In the study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging with 28 children (ages 7-9) two different times, about a year apart. The participants, all of whom had typical intelligence levels, were given simple math problems during the scanning. The researchers recorded how long it took them to complete each one, and monitored activity in the brain regions. 

By the second scan, when children were solving problems more quickly, the hippocampus was more activated, and the prefrontal and parietal cortex were less activated.

The researchers also looked at the brains of 20 adolescents (ages 14-17) and 20 adults (19-22). They found, notably, that those two groups "made minimal use of their hippocampus while solving math problems. Instead, they pulled math facts from well-developed information stores in the neocortex," according to the news service.

"What this means is that the hippocampus is providing a scaffold for learning and consolidating facts into long-term memory in children," said Vinon Menon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and the lead researcher for the study. "In adults this scaffold is not needed because memory for math facts has most likely been consolidated into the neocortex."

Menon is now wondering why retrieval is more difficult for students with dyscalculia and other math disabilities. "Is it that the hippocampus can't provide a reliable scaffold to build good representations of math facts in other parts of the brain during the early stages of learning, and so the child continues to use inefficient strategies to solve math problems? We want to test this," he told the Stanford news service.

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