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Scientific result | Brain | Learning | Medical imaging | MRI
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).
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
The shape of the ACC contributes to cognitive control efficiency in preschoolers.
CEA is a French government-funded technological research organisation in four main areas: low-carbon energies, defense and security, information technologies and health technologies. A prominent player in the European Research Area, it is involved in setting up collaborative projects with many partners around the world.