Degree of correlation between children's right intraparietal sulcus hemodynamic activity during free viewing of Sesame Street with those of adults predicts their cognitive maturation

The intricate relationship between brain maturation and cognitive development in children has been previously investigated by measuring brain hemodynamic activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging during performance of a variety of mathematical and conceptual tasks. While these studies have produced vast amount of knowledge on maturation of cognitive abilities, it has remained to a large extent an open question how development of cognitive abilities shapes the way that the developing brain responds to real-life like stimuli such as movies, for example, whether school-based knowledge of mathematics shapes the way that children process educational videos involving math problems.

To answer this question, Drs. Jessica Cantlon and Rosa Li (2013) presented children and adults an episode of the educational TV-program Sesame Street during functional magnetic resonance imaging. They then correlated the hemodynamic data of individual children with the data of adult participants to derive an index of brain maturation. Their results show in a very convincing manner how increasing similarity between hemodynamic responses of children and adults under the natural viewing conditions predicts the degree that mathematical ability has developed in the children. The right intraparietal sulcus was especially implicated by their analyses as a brain structure wherein maturation (i.e., adult-likeness) of functional brain activity predicts school-based mathematical ability. They further verified the involvement of this brain region in numerical processing using a more conventional functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment, however, interestingly only the measures of the natural viewing paradigm significantly predicted the children’s school based mathematical performance.

These highly exciting findings further demonstrate the complementary nature of the natural viewing paradigms that are becoming increasingly frequent in cognitive neuroscience. The approach where an index of brain functional maturity is derived in a straightforward and model free manner by correlating hemodynamic response time courses across brain regions between children and adult participants during free viewing of movie clips is one that can be easily foreseen as paving way, in a fundamentally important manner, for further neurocognitive development studies.

Reference: Cantlon JF, Li R. Neural activity during natural viewing of Sesame Street statistically predicts test scores in early childhood. PLoS Biology (2013) 11: e1001462. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001462

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