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Mental calculation in a prodigy is sustained by right prefrontal and medial temporal areas

Abstract

Calculating prodigies are individuals who are exceptional at quickly and accurately solving complex mental calculations. With positron emission tomography (PET), we investigated the neural bases of the cognitive abilities of an expert calculator and a group of non-experts, contrasting complex mental calculation to memory retrieval of arithmetic facts. We demonstrated that calculation expertise was not due to increased activity of processes that exist in non-experts; rather, the expert and the non-experts used different brain areas for calculation. We found that the expert could switch between short-term effort-requiring storage strategies and highly efficient episodic memory encoding and retrieval, a process that was sustained by right prefrontal and medial temporal areas.

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Figure 1: Example of the two kinds of mental calculation tasks done during PET, and the type of resolution used by R. Gamm.
Figure 2: Brain areas activated during complex mental calculation either by both R. Gamm and the group of six non-expert calculators (green) or specifically by R. Gamm (red).

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Rüdiger Gamm for his participation in this study. This work has been supported in part by a grant, 'GIS Science de la Cognition,' and the PAI/IUAP Program from the Belgian Government. M.P. is a Research Associate of the National Fund for Scientific Research (Belgium).

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Correspondence to Nathalie Tzourio-Mazoyer.

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Pesenti, M., Zago, L., Crivello, F. et al. Mental calculation in a prodigy is sustained by right prefrontal and medial temporal areas. Nat Neurosci 4, 103–107 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/82831

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