The Effects of Long-term Abacus Training on Topological Properties of Brain Functional Networks

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The Effects of Long-term Abacus Training on Topological Properties of Brain Functional Networks

Previous studies in the field of abacus-based mental calculation (AMC) training have shown that this training has the potential to enhance a wide variety of cognitive abilities. It can also generate specific changes in brain structure and function. However, there is lack of studies investigating the impact of AMC training on the characteristics of brain networks. In this study, utilizing graph-based network analysis, we compared topological properties of brain functional networks between an AMC group and a matched control group. Relative to the control group, the AMC group exhibited higher nodal degrees in bilateral calcarine sulcus and increased local efficiency in bilateral superior occipital gyrus and right cuneus. The AMC group also showed higher nodal local efficiency in right fusiform gyrus, which was associated with better math ability. However, no relationship was significant in the control group. These findings provide evidence that long-term AMC training may improve information processing efficiency in visual-spatial related regions, which extend our understanding of training plasticity at the brain network level.

As is well known, training can result in improvements in various cognitive skills1. But the mechanisms underlying these cognitive gains remain unclear. In the past decade, neuroimaging researchers have focused on the training-induced plasticity and reorganization of neural systems2, 3, which may contribute greatly to our understanding of how training drives cognitive developments.

More recently, abacus-based mental calculation (AMC) training, a method to perform complex calculations in a visual-spatial format, has received much attention in the field of training-induced neural plasticity. Abacus, which consists of beads and rods, can be used to perform complex arithmetic operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square root and cubic root. Instead of a physical abacus, individuals after long-term AMC training can imagine an abacus in mind and perform arithmetic operations on a virtual abacus rapidly and precisely. For example, Stigler et al., found that AMC experts have extraordinary ability to do calculations involving multi-operands each with as many as 10 digits with unusual speed and high accuracy4. Recently, neuroimaging approaches have been used to study brain functional and anatomical plasticity induced by AMC training2, 3, 5. In fMRI studies with calculation tasks, AMC experts showed enhanced activation in some brain regions compared to the matched controls, possibly due to the strengthened involvement of a specific visual-spatial strategy, and the weakened involvement of the common linguistic strategy in AMC experts2, 5. These enhanced activations were often observed in brain regions including fusiform gyrus, inferior parietal lobule and occipital gyrus2, 6, 7. It has been proposed that the utilization of a visual-spatial representation in mathematical tasks may account for this phenomenon in AMC experts8–11. Anatomical MRI studies also indicated that frequent employment of visual-spatial processing in AMC training might result in structural plasticity3, 12. A voxel-based morphometric study provided evidence of between-group differences in the gray matter of AMC experts and controls12. Gray matter volume decreased in AMC group in visual-spatial related regions, such as fusiform gyrus12. Another study showed increased fractional anisotropy values in the occipitotemporal junction, a key fiber connected to fusiform gyrus and parietal lobule, which plays an important role in visual information processing3. Moreover, it was reported that the projections from the fusiform gyrus to other brain regions in AMC experts were strengthened in comparison with the control individuals12. Taken together, these functional and structural studies indicated that AMC training would result in different activation patterns and/or anatomical features in visual-spatial related regions, especially in the fusiform gyrus2, 3, 12, a key neural underpins of visual-spatial processing13. However, previous studies were based on voxel-based comparisons or seed-based connectivity, which both are less able to offer a complete view of the characteristics of whole brain connectivity. The present study, utilizing graph-based network analysis, assessed connectivity in a brain-wide network14. We hypothesized that long-term AMC training might induce the plasticity of brain functional network, especially in visual-spatial related regions, such as fusiform gyrus.

Nowadays, studies have implied that the human brain was organized as a complex system15, 16. Graph-theoretical network analysis is the most prominent method to quantify brain network properties and describe the framework of brain network organization17, 18. Using network analysis, studies have assessed brain network based on both structural and functional properties17, 19–21, with brain regions as nodes and the strength of region-to-region correlations as edges. Results have shown that human brain is organized as a network to process information efficiently by balancing brain integration and segregation22. Meanwhile, a large number of studies reported the alterations of brain networks induced by brain maturation, atrophy, psychiatric disorders, and skill acquisition14, 17, 19, 20, 23, 24. These studies indicated that brain network analysis could provide a complete view of the characteristics of brain connectivity and additional information about connectivity in specific neural systems.

Based on these findings, we hypothesized that AMC training might affect the organization of human brain network represented by topological alterations, especially in brain regions related to visual-spatial function, such as fusiform gyrus. To test these hypothesis, we recruited 72 children with AMC experience and 72 matched control children without any knowledge of abacus. A math ability test was used in our study, which is the most sensitive cognitive improvements induced by AMC training. Utilizing graph theory, we constructed brain functional networks, based on resting state MRI data, for each participant respectively. Then we contrasted the topological properties between the two groups. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate the effect of AMC training on brain plasticity at the network organization level.

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