Brown bag du 17/09/2018 à 11h30 Teresa Iuculano, LaPsyDÉ, CNRS & Université Paris Descartes



Sources of individual differences in mathematical learning: the role of neuroscience

Plasticity is a fundamental characteristic of the human brain that lies at the core of its ability to learn new information and ultimately acquire extremely complex, uniquely human cognitive skills, such as mathematics. For example, the ability to solve even simple arithmetical operations such as “3+4” – which is at the core of mathematical competence – involves the orchestrated effort and reorganization of multiple functional brain systems. These include higher level perceptual areas in the ventral temporal-occipital cortex that support visual-form judgement and symbol recognition, posterior parietal association areas for quantity representations, and prefrontal regions involved in domain-general cognitive functions, such as attention, rule switching and some aspects of working memory. Heterogeneity of mathematical skills has been extensively documented, yet little is known about the brain systems that support successful or unsuccessful learning within this domain, particularly during development. My work uses an interdisciplinary approach that integrates neuroscience methods with state-of-the-art pedagogical and cognitive models to assess how brain systems change with learning, and as a function of heterogeneity of skills. In this talk, I will report the results of three studies in which we use a well-controlled learning design that combines an intensive one-on-one cognitive math training with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to assess brain plasticity during arithmetic problem-solving in different cohorts of elementary school children. First, we show that training elicited dramatic neuroplasticity in a population of children with mathematical learning disabilities (MLD), by significantly reducing functional activity in multiple cortical brain systems in the ventral temporal-occipital, posterior parietal and prefrontal cortices, to the level of neurotypical peers. In typical achievers, the same cognitive training was instead associated with greater engagement of memory systems anchored in the hippocampus, and concurrent increases in hippocampal-cortical connectivity. Finally, in a third study, we show that, in a cohort of children with high levels of math anxiety, training elicited neuroplasticity effects characterized by reduced activity in emotion-related circuits anchored in the basolateral amygdala. Together, these findings suggest that the recruitment of brain systems supporting mathematical learning changes as a function of cognitive, as well as affective profiles. More generally, this work helps to situate neuroscience findings as a key metric to shed light onto individual differences in mathematical learning, and refine neurocognitive models of math development, with the ultimate goal to best inform educational practices.