Young Kids, Adults Use Same Brain Areas to Solve Tough Problems

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 15, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Adults use a special part of their brain to solve tough problems. Now, new research shows that kids do the same.

Scientists used brain scans and challenging work to assess how kids and adults might work through these tough problems and whether or not their problem-solving processes were the same.

Turns out they were.

The researchers found that while the multiple demand network is not fully developed in kids, it operates similarly to the way it does in adults, said senior study author Zeynep Saygin, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

“We found that the multiple demand network was a distinct network even in young children, and was separate from the language network, just as it is in adults,” Saygin said in a university news release.

"That was something that wasn’t known for sure," she said. "One alternative would have been that it takes time for these separate networks in the brain to differentiate themselves in children, but that’s not what we found.”

The study included 44 adults ages 18 to 38 years old and 37 children ages 4 to 12.

The participants' brains were scanned using fMRI technology while working through a relatively difficult task.

First, they were shown a series of grids containing nine to 12 squares, some of which were blue.

They were then shown two grids and had to choose which one matched the sequence of blue squares they had seen in earlier grids. The children were given easier trials than adults.

Study participants also completed a language task where they listened to meaningful sentences and control conditions.

The multiple demand network, located in the frontal and parietal cortices in the brain, was activated in both children and adults when they completed the challenging task. It was not at all activated for the language task.

The findings were published online Feb. 7 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Saygin said there would have been reasons to expect that kids wouldn’t have a multiple demand network similar to adults.

"We know that children aren’t always good at knowing what to focus on, they are distracted easily, and they don’t always do well when presented with difficult problems. So, it wasn’t a given that they would be using the same multiple demand network that adults use,” she said. “But even in 4-year-olds, this network is pretty robust and is very distinct from the language network.”

Still, the response magnitude seen in children was smaller as they tried to solve the task. This indicates it takes years for the brain to mature and “ramp up” to adult levels, Saygin said.

"The findings give us a better understanding of how high-level cognition emerges in humans and could help us design interventions for when people have issues with cognitive control," she said.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on early childhood health and development.

SOURCE: Ohio State University, news release, Feb. 13, 2023

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