December 1, 2020

Entropy, complexity, and maturity in children’s neural responses during naturalistic mathematics learning

A major goal of human neuroscience is to understand how the brain functions in the real world, and to measure neural processes under naturalistic conditions that are more ecologically valid than traditional laboratory tasks. A critical step toward this goal is understanding how neural activity during real world naturalistic tasks relates to neural activity in more traditional laboratory tasks. In the present study, we used intersubject correlations to locate reliable stimulus-driven neural processes among children and adults in naturalistic and laboratory versions of a mathematics task that shared the same content. We show that relative to a control condition with grammatical content, naturalistic and simplified mathematics tasks evoked overlapping activation within brain regions previously associated with math semantics. We further examined the temporal properties of children’s neural responses during the naturalistic and laboratory tasks to determine whether temporal patterns of neural activity change over development, or dissociate based on semantic or task content. We introduce a rather novel measure, not yet used in fMRI studies of child learning: neural multiscale entropy. In addition to showing new evidence of naturalistic mathematics processing in the developing brain, we show that neural maturity and neural entropy are two independent but complementary markers of functional brain development. We discuss the implications of these results for the development of neural complexity in children.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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