Functional brain organization for number processing in pre-verbal infants

Laura A. Edwards, Jennifer B. Wagner, Charline E. Simon, Daniel C. Hyde

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Humans are born with the ability to mentally represent the approximate numerosity of a set of objects, but little is known about the brain systems that sub-serve this ability early in life and their relation to the brain systems underlying symbolic number and mathematics later in development. Here we investigate processing of numerical magnitudes before the acquisition of a symbolic numerical system or even spoken language, by measuring the brain response to numerosity changes in pre-verbal infants using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). To do this, we presented infants with two types of numerical stimulus blocks: number change blocks that presented dot arrays alternating in numerosity and no change blocks that presented dot arrays all with the same number. Images were carefully constructed to rule out the possibility that responses to number changes could be due to non-numerical stimulus properties that tend to co-vary with number. Interleaved with the two types of numerical blocks were audio-visual animations designed to increase attention. We observed that number change blocks evoked an increase in oxygenated hemoglobin over a focal right parietal region that was greater than that observed during no change blocks and during audio-visual attention blocks. The location of this effect was consistent with intra-parietal activity seen in older children and adults for both symbolic and non-symbolic numerical tasks. A distinct set of bilateral occipital and middle parietal channels responded more to the attention-grabbing animations than to either of the types of numerical stimuli, further dissociating the specific right parietal response to number from a more general bilateral visual or attentional response. These results provide the strongest evidence to date that the right parietal cortex is specialized for numerical processing in infancy, as the response to number is dissociated from visual change processing and general attentional processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)757-769
Number of pages13
JournalDevelopmental science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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