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The shape of the brain contributes to children's learning ability

Brain anatomy plays a major role in cognitive control, a key skill in learning and academic success. This finding is the result of research carried out by the Laboratory for the Psychology of Child Development and Education (CNRS/Université Paris Descartes/Université de Caen Basse-Normandie), in collaboration with the NeuroSpin imaging center (CEA).​

Published on 28 November 2013

​Cognitive control is a key factor in learning ability and intelligence. When an individual is confronted with a problem, this faculty serves to detect cognitive conflicts in order to inhibit bad solution strategies and choose the right strategy. One of the areas of the brain where this cognitive control operates is the cingulate cortex, located on the inner surface of the cortex, between the two hemispheres of the brain. The researchers focused on the anatomy of this area in children aged 5, an age when the brain is developing.

To begin with, the researchers carried out anatomical MRI on a group of around twenty children from the same class, enabling them to observe the gyri of the cingulate cortex. The latter can take two forms: single, with a single sulcus, or double, with two parallel sulci. Some of the children have the formation in both left and right hemispheres, while for others, this particular pattern is asymmetrical between the two hemispheres.

Next, in the classroom, the researchers showed the children a series of pictures of animals. In some, the body and the head were not the same animal. The children had to name the animal's body. These images set up a cognitive conflict that the children had to resolve. The children's immediate impulse is to look at the shape of the head in order to identify the animal.

The researchers measured the response time for each child and the number of correct answers. They observed that the children in whom the cingulate cortex was asymmetrical between the left and right hemispheres had better results in this task and, therefore, were more efficient in terms of cognitive control.

The explanation defined by the researchers, which they now hope to test, is that asymmetry between the left and right hemisphere corresponds to greater lateralization and, therefore, greater specialization of each hemisphere. This would result in improved capacity for resolving the kind of task. These anatomical characteristics do not play a determining role in a child's cognitive control nor, even less so, in its intelligence. The researcher believe that around 20% of the variability in cognitive control between individuals can be explained by these anatomical factors. The remaining 80% is due to various environmental factors such as education as well as social and economic factors.

Nonetheless, these results show that depending on the characteristics of their brains, children may have different educational needs when it comes to cognitive control learning. Cognitive control could then be improved thanks to special training. This opens up a whole new field of science, at the intersection of cerebral anatomy, cognitive development psychology and education.

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