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Link between Brain Structure and Mathematical Ability may Lead to Better Treatment for Children with FASD

January 2, 2010
Catherine Lebel, Carmen Rasmussen, Katy Wyper, Gail Andrew, and Christian Beaulieu

Catherine Lebel, Carmen Rasmussen, Katy Wyper, Gail Andrew, and Christian Beaulieu (February 2010). Brain microstructure is related to math ability in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER). 34(2): 354-363

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  • Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) have a number of cognitive deficits.
  • Mathematical ability seems particularly damaged in children with FASD.
  • A new study supports the importance of the left parietal area for mathematical abilities in children with FASD.

Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) have a number of cognitive deficits, but mathematical ability seems particularly damaged. Little is known about the brain structures related to mathematical deficits in children with FASD. A new study that used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to investigate the relationship between mathematical skills and brain white matter structure in children with FASD supports the importance of the left parietal area for mathematical tasks.

Results will be published in the February 2010 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.

“Children with FASD have learning difficulties with reading, memory, executive functioning, attention, and mathematics,” said Christian Beaulieu, associate professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the University of Alberta and senior author for the study.

“Specific deficits in mathematics exist even when their global deficits are taken into account,” added Claire D. Coles, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine. “Children with FASD are similar in their presentation to children with nonverbal learning disabilities, which are sometimes associated with visual/spatial deficits and math deficits; one of the factors thought to produce these effects is deficits in white matter integrity.”

“From studies of brain function, we know that the parietal brain regions are involved in mathematics and number tasks,” said Catherine Lebel, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering who is also corresponding author for the study. “We knew that mathematics was a key deficit in FASD and decided to examine which brain structures were related to these mathematical deficits.”

The researchers used DTI to scan 21 children (12 boys, 9 girls), five to 13 years of age, who had been diagnosed with FASD in an earlier study; they also used a cognitive assessment to establish the children’s mathematical abilities.

“We found that four different brain areas show correlations between structure and mathematical ability in children with FASD,” said Lebel. “Two of these regions in the left parietal area are very similar to previous findings in healthy children and in a rare genetic disorder, suggesting that these regions are key areas for math across diverse populations. The two other regions – the cerebellum and the brainstem – might be unique to children with FASD in terms of math-structure relationships.”

“The parietal lobes are what is referred to as the ‘association’ cortex because it is clear that it is in these areas that a great deal of the higher level ‘thinking’ occurs, in which different aspects of sensory processing – such as visual and auditory information – as well as cognitive activities are ‘associated,’” said Coles. “Math processing relies on a number of skills, visual/spatial skills, executive functioning (which rely on the frontal lobes), and probably the corpus callosum which allows integration of information in the two hemispheres. Previous research has also shown that ‘math’ processing is associated with certain parts of the parietal lobes. However, different areas seem to be related to different processes, like addition and subtraction, and more difficult kinds of math involve more areas, which are interrelated in ‘networks.’”

“Our findings demonstrate a link between brain structure and cognition that provides insight into how the FASD brain works,” said Lebel, “and also help understand mathematical processing in a larger population because of the similarities to previous studies. Ultimately, a better understanding of the underlying cause of the various cognitive deficits in FASD may lead to better treatment and improved quality of life.”