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Abstract

Cognitive development and learning are characterized by diminished reliance on effortful procedures and increased use of memory-based problem solving. Here we identify the neural correlates of this strategy shift in 7–9-year-old children at an important developmental period for arithmetic skill acquisition. Univariate and multivariate approaches were used to contrast brain responses between two groups of children who relied primarily on either retrieval or procedural counting strategies. Children who used retrieval strategies showed greater responses in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex; notably, this was the only brain region which showed univariate differences in signal intensity between the two groups. In contrast, multivariate analysis revealed distinct multivoxel activity patterns in bilateral hippocampus, posterior parietal cortex and left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex regions between the two groups. These results demonstrate that retrieval and counting strategies during early learning are characterized by distinct patterns of activity in a distributed network of brain regions involved in arithmetic problem solving and controlled retrieval of arithmetic facts. Our findings suggest that the reorganization and refinement of neural activity patterns in multiple brain regions plays a dominant role in the transition to memory-based arithmetic problem solving. Our findings further demonstrate how multivariate approaches can provide novel insights into fine-scale developmental changes in the brain. More generally, our study illustrates how brain imaging and developmental research can be integrated to investigate fundamental aspects of neurocognitive development.