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Abstract

In early childhood, humans learn culturally specific symbols for number that allow them entry into the world of complex numerical thinking. Yet little is known about how the brain supports the development of the uniquely human symbolic number system. Here, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging along with an effective connectivity analysis to investigate the neural substrates for symbolic number processing in young children. We hypothesized that, as children solidify the mapping between symbols and underlying magnitudes, important developmental changes occur in the neural communication between the right parietal region, important for the representation of non-symbolic numerical magnitudes, and other brain regions known to be critical for processing numerical symbols. To test this hypothesis, we scanned children between 4 and 6 years of age while they performed a magnitude comparison task with Arabic numerals (numerical, symbolic), dot arrays (numerical, non-symbolic), and lines (non-numerical). We then identified the right parietal seed region that showed greater blood-oxygen-level-dependent signal in the numerical versus the non-numerical conditions. A psychophysiological interaction method was used to find patterns of effective connectivity arising from this parietal seed region specific to symbolic compared to non-symbolic number processing. Two brain regions, the left supramarginal gyrus and the right precentral gyrus, showed significant effective connectivity from the right parietal cortex. Moreover, the degree of this effective connectivity to the left supramarginal gyrus was correlated with age, and the degree of the connectivity to the right precentral gyrus predicted performance on a standardized symbolic math test. These findings suggest that effective connectivity underlying symbolic number processing may be critical as children master the associations between numerical symbols and magnitudes, and that these connectivity patterns may serve as an important indicator of mathematical achievement.