Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have determined the precise anatomical coordinates of a brain “hot spot,” measuring only about one-fifth of an inch across, that is preferentially activated when people view the ordinary numerals we learn early on in elementary school, like “6” or “38.”
Activity in this spot relative to neighboring sites drops off substantially when people are presented with numbers that are spelled out (“one” instead of “1”), homophones (“won” instead of “1”) or “false fonts,” in which a numeral or letter has been altered.
“This is the first-ever study to show the existence of a cluster of nerve cells in the human brain that specializes in processing numerals,” said Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and director of Stanford’s Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program. “In this small nerve-cell population, we saw a much bigger response to numerals than to very similar-looking, similar-sounding and similar-meaning symbols.
“It’s a dramatic demonstration of our brain circuitry’s capacity to change in response to education,” he added. “No one is born with the innate ability to recognize numerals.”The finding pries open the door to further discoveries delineating the flow of math-focused information processing in the brain. It also could have direct clinical ramifications for patients with dyslexia for numbers and with dyscalculia: the inability to process numerical information.
Interestingly, said Parvizi, that numeral-processing nerve-cell cluster is parked within a larger group of neurons that is activated by visual symbols that have lines with angles and curves. “These neuronal populations showed a preference for numerals compared with words that denote or sound like those numerals,” he said. “But in many cases, these sites actually responded strongly to scrambled letters or scrambled numerals. Still, within this larger pool of generic neurons, the ‘visual numeral area’ preferred real numerals to the false fonts and to same-meaning or similar-sounding words.”
It seems, Parvizi said, that “evolution has designed this brain region to detect visual stimuli such as lines intersecting at various angles — the kind of intersections a monkey has to make sense of quickly when swinging from branch to branch in a dense jungle.” The adaptation of one part of this region in service of numeracy is a beautiful intersection of culture and neurobiology, he said.
Having nailed down a specifically numeral-oriented spot in the brain, Parvizi’s lab is looking to use it in tracing the pathways described by the brain’s number-processing circuitry. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” said Shum. “We want to see how this particular area connects with and communicates with other parts of the brain.”
Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald