The brain-structural correlates of mathematical expertise.
Popescu T., Sader E., Schaer M., Thomas A., Terhune DB., Dowker A., Mars RB., Cohen Kadosh R.
Studies in several domains of expertise have established that experience-dependent plasticity brings about both functional and anatomical changes. However, little is known about how such changes come to shape the brain in the case of expertise acquired by professional mathematicians. Here, we aimed to identify cognitive and brain-structural (grey and white matter) characteristics of mathematicians as compared to non-mathematicians. Mathematicians and non-mathematician academics from the University of Oxford underwent structural and diffusion MRI scans, and were tested on a cognitive battery assessing working memory, attention, IQ, numerical and social skills. At the behavioural level, mathematical expertise was associated with better performance in domain-general and domain-specific dimensions. At the grey matter level, in a whole-brain analysis, behavioural performance correlated with grey matter density in left superior frontal gyrus - positively for mathematicians but negatively for non-mathematicians; in a region of interest analysis, we found in mathematicians higher grey matter density in the right superior parietal lobule, but lower grey matter density in the right intraparietal sulcus and in the left inferior frontal gyrus. In terms of white matter, there were no significant group differences in fractional anisotropy or mean diffusivity. These results reveal new insights into the relationship between mathematical expertise and grey matter metrics in brain regions previously implicated in numerical cognition, as well as in regions that have so far received less attention in this field. Further studies, based on longitudinal designs and cognitive training, could examine the conjecture that such cross-sectional findings arise from a bidirectional link between experience and structural brain changes that is itself subject to change across the lifespan.