June 6th, 2011
05:02 PM ET
How much difference does a year of schooling make in the development of the brain?
New research from Stanford University, published in the journal NeuroImage, suggests that problem-solving ability improves from second to third grade in ways that are associated with changes in the brain. The researchers believe these brain changes are the result of skills that the children are acquiring in school, although the study did not show cause and effect.
"It address both questions of how the brain improves and how children acquire new knowledge," said Vinod Menon, neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Researchers looked at 90 children, half of whom had recently completed second grade and the other half whom had just finished third grade, aged 7 to 9. They did not all go to the same school. Participants had normal intelligence and scored between the 25th and 98th percentile in math reasoning. Third graders tended to have better math reasoning skills, and were about one year older than the second graders.
They found that third graders' brains responded differently than second graders' when doing certain mental calculations.
Researchers gave the children both simple and complex addition problems. In the easy calculations, one of the numbers being added is 1. For the more difficult problems, they had to add a number between 2 and 9 to a number between 2 and 5.
In general, the third graders were more accurate at the math problems than the second graders, but still not 100%.
While the second graders' brains treated these kinds of tasks similarly, third graders showed distinct brain responses for simple and difficult problems. The older children showed greater engagement in a brain system related to quantity representation, and in another related to working memory.
The third graders' brains also showed greater "cross-talk," or signal transfer, along pathways that deal with information between those two regions, and help with more efficient numerical problem solving.
"Hopefully at some point we'll be able to translate and use this information to examine children with dyscalculia and related learning disabilities," Menon said.
There's not enough evidence for specifics yet, but the idea is that brain imaging could inform educational interventions for these children. Understanding the parts of the brain involved in children's math skill development could lead to tutoring or other cognitive paradigms for children with learning disabilities, Menon said.
The next step is to follow individual children through years of schooling to see how their brain responses change. The researchers will also look at children with autism and other developmental disabilities to examine their brain responses in problem solving.
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