BLOG

Abacus news

Welcome To Abacus Mental Arithmetic Education Center!

Abacus in the brain

2016-09-26 Hits 2904

Abacus in the brain: a longitudinal functional MRI study of a skilled abacus user with a right hemispheric lesion

Satoshi Tanaka1*, Keiko Seki2Takashi Hanakawa3, Madoka Harada4, Sho K. Sugawara5,6Norihiro Sadato5,6, Katsumi Watanabe7 and Manabu Honda3
  • 1 Center for Fostering Young and Innovative Researchers, Nagoya Institute of Technology, Nagoya, Japan
  • 2 Graduate School of Health Sciences, Kobe University, Kobe, Japan
  • 3 Department of Functional Brain Research, National Institute of Neuroscience, Kodaira, Japan
  • 4 Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Eisei Hospital, Hachioji, Japan
  • 5 Division of Cerebral Integration, National Institute for Physiological Sciences, Okazaki, Japan
  • 6 School of Life Sciences, The Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI), Hayama, Japan
  • 7 Research Center for Advanced Technology and Science, The University of Tokyo, Komaba, Japan

The abacus, a traditional physical calculation device, is still widely used in Asian countries. Previous behavioral work has shown that skilled abacus users perform rapid and precise mental arithmetic by manipulating a mental representation of an abacus, which is based on visual imagery. However, its neurophysiological basis remains unclear. Here, we report the case of a patient who was a good abacus user, but transiently lost her “mental abacus” and superior arithmetic performance after a stroke owing to a right hemispheric lesion including the dorsal premotor cortex (PMd) and inferior parietal lobule (IPL). Functional magnetic resonance imaging experiments were conducted 6 and 13 months after her stroke. In the mental calculation task, her brain activity was shifted from the language-related areas, including Broca’s area and the left dorsolateral prefrontal and IPLs, to the visuospatial-related brain areas including the left superior parietal lobule (SPL), according to the recovery of her arithmetic abilities. In the digit memory task, activities in the bilateral SPL, and right visual association cortex were also observed after recovery. The shift of brain activities was consistent with her subjective report that she was able to shift the calculation strategy from linguistic to visuospatial as her mental abacus became stable again. In a behavioral experiment using an interference paradigm, a visual presentation of an abacus picture, but not a human face picture, interfered with the performance of her digit memory, confirming her use of the mental abacus after recovery. This is the first case report on the impairment of the mental abacus by a brain lesion and on recovery-related brain activity. We named this rare case “abacus-based acalculia.” Together with previous neuroimaging studies, the present result suggests an important role for the PMd and parietal cortex in the superior arithmetic ability of abacus users.

 

Introduction

To perform complex calculations, most people rely on physical devices such as pencil and paper, mechanical calculators, and more recently digital computers. One such device is an abacus, which is still widely used in Asian countries. The abacus is a simple device of beads and rods, and numbers are represented by the spatial locations of beads (Figure 1). Skilled abacus users can calculate accurate answers to mathematical problems extremely rapidly. Interestingly, however, abacus users not only manipulate the tool skillfully in its physical form but also gain the ability to mentally calculate extraordinarily large numbers, often more than 10 digits at the expert level, with unusual speed and accuracy (Hatano et al., 1977). Psychological studies have shown that a non-linguistic strategy using visual imagery of the abacus (a “mental abacus”) underlies this unusual calculation ability (Hatano et al., 19771987Hatano and Osawa, 1983Stigler, 1984;Hatta et al., 1989Hishitani, 1990Hanakawa et al., 2004Tanaka et al., 2008Frank and Barner, 2012). These works have demonstrated examples of the role of mental imagery in mental arithmetic operations.

 
FIGURE 1
www.frontiersin.org

Figure 1. Illustrations of an abacus. An abacus is a rectangular wooden calculator based on the decimal system.

 

Each vertical rod has five sliding beads, one above and four below a middle horizontal bar. Numbers are represented by the configurations of the beads. A bead above the bar is equal to five when it is pushed down, and each of the four beads below is equal to one when pushed up. For example, the left figure (A) represents 123,456 and the right figure (B) represents 307,928.

 
 

Several behavioral and neuroimaging studies have attempted to examine the neural correlates of the calculation strategy employed by abacus users (Hatta and Ikeda, 1988Tanaka et al., 20022008;Hanakawa et al., 2003Chen et al., 2006Wu et al., 2009Hu et al., 2011Ku et al., 2012). For example, recent neuroimaging studies have reported activation in the bilateral dorsal premotor cortex (PMd) and inferior and superior parietal lobule (IPL and SPL, respectively) during mental calculation and digit memory tasks in abacus users (Tanaka et al., 2002Hanakawa et al., 2003Chen et al., 2006Wu et al., 2009Ku et al., 2012). However, there have been no neuropsychological studies that report deficits in mental abacus ability after focal brain injury. Therefore, the causal relationship between mental abacus ability and region-specific brain structures remains unclear.

Here, we report the case of a patient who was a well-experienced abacus user but had impaired mental arithmetic performance based on her mental abacus strategy due to a stroke. Her knowledge of basic arithmetic facts and her knowledge and operation of a physical abacus were intact. Only performance in mental calculation and digit memory tasks based on the mental abacus strategy was transiently impaired after the lesion. When we met her for the first time, she said “I lost my abacus in the brain.”

The first purpose of the present study was to localize the lesion areas using high-resolution structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with a 3T MRI scanner. We hypothesized that the lesion areas should include the PMd and/or parietal regions that were dominantly activated during the mental calculation and digit memory tasks in the previous functional MRI studies of abacus users (Tanaka et al., 2002Hanakawa et al., 2003Chen et al., 2006Ku et al., 2012).

The second purpose of the present study was to examine the changes of brain activity with the recovery of mental abacus ability. Several neuroimaging studies have reported changes of brain activities with recovery from motor, attentional, or language deficits after stroke (Ward et al., 2003Fridman et al., 2004Corbetta et al., 2005Price and Crinion, 2005Heiss and Thiel, 2006). However, recovery-related changes in brain activity from deficits in arithmetic ability, especially in the non-linguistic aspects of arithmetic operation, remain totally unknown.

We hypothesized that the patient would change her strategy for mental calculation and digit memory from verbal to visuospatial with stroke recovery. Therefore, her brain activity during mental calculation would shift from language-related to visuospatial-related brain regions after recovery. As mentioned above, previous imaging studies have revealed dominant activation in the bilateral PMd, IPL, and SPL during mental calculation in abacus experts (Tanaka et al., 2002Hanakawa et al., 2003). Neuroanatomical studies have shown that the PMd and parietal cortex have dense neuroanatomical connections (Wise et al., 1997;Luppino et al., 1999Wise and Murray, 2000). Thus, the PMd, IPL, and SPL may work as a functional network during abacus-based mental calculation. Damage in one node may induce transient impairment of mental abacus ability. However, it is possible that the other intact nodes in the functional network could gain the ability to work without the damaged node, possibly because of functional reorganization within the remote intact nodes (Frost et al., 2003Fridman et al., 2004Dancause et al., 2006). Thus, we hypothesized that the intact PMd, IPL, and/or SPL would be active with the recovery of mental abacus ability.

In the present study, functional MRI experiments were conducted 6 and 13 months after her stroke and brain activity between the two sessions was compared in order to test this hypothesis. In addition, a behavioral experiment using dual-task interference paradigms was conducted to confirm her use of the mental imagery of an abacus on a digit memory task 13 months after her stroke.

Materials and Methods

Case Report

The patient was a 57-year old left handed female. She had worked as a professor in a national university before the stroke. She had a Ph.D. degree in medicine and had worked as a scientist in the field of neuropsychology for more than 25 years. She had published more than 20 international peer-reviewed papers. She had also engaged in rehabilitative medicine as a speech-language-hearing therapist for more than 25 years.

She started her abacus training at an abacus school when she was an elementary-school child, and had trained in physical and mental abacus operation for 3 years. We speculated that she was an excellent and skilled abacus user owing to the fact that she became a finalist at a domestic abacus competition in Japan in two successive years, although her training period was relatively shorter compared with the grand experts who participated in our previous functional MRI studies (Tanaka et al., 2002Hanakawa et al., 2003). After she finished her abacus training, she kept using abacus-based mental calculation and mnemonic strategies in everyday activities for a long period and did not lose her ability. In fact, she reported that her forward digit span was around 12 before the stroke episode. This was far beyond the average score for her age group.

In July 2009, she suffered from a right hemispheric infarct in the territory of the anterior and middle cerebral arteries. When a therapist tested her digit span during a clinical neuropsychological evaluation in a hospital approximately 2 months after her stroke, she noticed that she was not able to use the mental abacus strategy for the digit span test. She was not able to generate vivid mental imagery of an abacus and the image of the abacus was very fragile. Detailed structural MRI scans were obtained in January 2010. Functional MRI scans were conducted at two different periods, the first in January 2010 and the second in August 2010.

Neuropsychological Evaluation

Neuropsychological evaluations were conducted approximately 1 month after stroke onset. Her score on Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices was in the average range (33/36). Similarly, her IQ measured by Kohs Block Design Test was also in the average range (108). The Standard Language Test for Aphasia (SLTA; Hasegawa et al., 1984), which has been widely used in Japan, did not detect any impairments of language. However, clinical observation detected mild impairments of her speech production: her prosody was impaired and speed of speech was slow with small volume. Clinical observation immediately after her stroke detected unilateral visual neglect. For motor function, the patient showed a severe paralysis in the left upper limb and mild paralysis in the left lower limb.

Arithmetic Ability

After her stroke onset, her arithmetic ability was not impaired according to the neuropsychological evaluation. She was able to perform four basic arithmetic operations without any problem. In fact, she was able to answer all arithmetic problems correctly in the SLTA. In addition, her long-term memory of digits was also intact because she correctly remembered the numbers of her bank accounts and airplane mileage accounts. However, she noticed that she was not able to generate visual imagery of a mental abacus, which had been easily generated before the stroke, when a neuropsychologist tested her maximum digit span 2 months after her stroke. Before the stroke, she used to use the mental abacus strategy especially when she calculated and memorized larger sequences of digits, because the visuospatial strategy, rather than a phonological strategy, was useful in coding a larger number of digits (Hatano et al., 1977Hatano and Osawa, 1983). Due to the impairment of visual imagery after her stroke, she used the phonological strategy instead. She was able to perform four basic arithmetic operations correctly although she felt that her arithmetic ability had declined after her stroke.

Six months after her stroke, just before the first functional MRI session, we evaluated her knowledge of basic arithmetic facts, as well as her knowledge, and operation of a physical abacus. These aspects were all intact. However, she still felt that it was difficult to generate a vivid visual image of a mental abacus. She reported that she was not able to perform mental calculations and memorize digit sequences based on the mental abacus strategy because her mental abacus was fragile. However, 13 months after her stroke, she reported that her capacity for visual imagery of a mental abacus had recovered. At that time, she participated in the second functional MRI session.

Figure 2 shows her behavioral performance of maximum digit and alphabet span tasks. Forward digit span and forward and backward alphabet spans were all unchanged across the experimental period. In contrast, backward digit span improved over time after her stroke. Her backward digit span 13 months after her stroke was eight and almost equal to her forward digit span. It has been reported that abacus experts reproduce a series of digits in backward order almost as well as in the forward order, because both require experts to read off the digits from visuospatial mental representation of an abacus (Hatano and Osawa, 1983). Therefore, nearly identical maximum digit spans both backward and forward might be interpreted as evidence that she used her mental abacus 13 months after her stroke. In fact, she reported that she was able to use the mental abacus strategy for the backward digit span task 13 months after her stroke.

 
FIGURE 2
www.frontiersin.org

Figure 2. Behavioral performance of maximum digit and alphabet span tasks. Maximum digit spans were higher compared with alphabet span, indicating that her superior performance was digit memory-specific. Her maximum forward digit span (white circle), as well as forward and backward alphabet spans (white and black triangles), was unchanged across the entire experimental period. However, the maximum backward digit span (black circle) was improved over time after her stroke.

 
 

Experimental Procedure

The patient gave written, informed consent before the experiments, which were approved by the local ethics committee of the National Institute for Neuroscience.

The patient participated in two functional MRI sessions of the mental calculation and digit memory tasks (Experiment 1). The first and second functional MRI sessions were conducted 6 months (January 2010) and 13 months (August 2010) after her stroke onset, respectively. The difference of the brain activities between the two sessions was compared. Structural MRI scans were obtained in January 2010. In addition, the patient participated in a behavioral experiment after the second functional MRI session in order to examine whether the patient would use abacus-based mental calculation and digit memory strategies in these tasks (Experiment 2).

Experiment 1

Behavioral task in functional MRI experiment

For the functional MRI experiment, the patient performed mental calculation and digit memory tasks that were used in our previous functional MRI studies of abacus experts (Tanaka et al., 2002Hanakawa et al., 2003). Before the functional MRI experiment, she practiced these tasks outside the scanner to become familiar with the tasks. Presentation software (Neurobehavioral Systems Inc., Albany, CA, USA) was used for the visual stimulus presentation and to record her responses. Stimuli were presented on a screen using a liquid crystal display projector, and she viewed the screen though a mirror.

For the mental calculation task, white digit stimuli were presented for 1.5 s with inter-stimulus intervals of 2 s on the center of a screen (Figure 3A, Hanakawa et al., 2003). Digit stimuli were presented 10 times during each trial. The patient was asked to mentally add the presented series of digits without moving her fingers. After the presentation of these digit stimuli, a red digit stimulus was presented for 3 s. She was asked to judge whether the addition answer in her mind and the test digit stimuli were the same or different, by pressing one of the response buttons with the right fingers. After each trial, there was an 18-s inter-trial interval (ITI) in which the patient simply watched the white fixation cross presented at the center of the screen (visual fixation condition). She performed additional tasks with single-digit and two-digit numbers. The experimental session consisted of five trials for each task in an alternate order.

 
FIGURE 3
www.frontiersin.org

Figure 3. (A) Schematic illustration of the mental calculation task. The patient was asked to add a series of numbers mentally that were visually presented on the computer screen. (B) Schematic illustration of the digit memory task. She was asked to retain the target sequence of digits during the delay period.

 
 

For the digit memory task, a delayed match-to-sample task using a digit sequence as the stimulus was employed (Figure 3B, Tanaka et al., 2002). A target digit sequence was presented on the center of a screen for 3 s. The length of the digit sequence was a five digit number, which was two digits shorter than her digit span memory capacity measured before the first functional MRI session. After a 15-s delay period, during which only a fixation cross appeared on the screen, a test sequence of digits was presented for 3 s. She was asked to judge whether the target and test sequences were the same or different, by pressing one of the response buttons. Following these behavioral events, there was a 17-s visual fixation. The experimental session consisted of 10 trials.

The patient also participated in functional MRI experiments of verbal fluency and hand grip tasks 13 months after the stroke. These experiments were conducted to ascertain whether the region-specific brain activity during arithmetic tasks 13 months after the stroke would be task-specific or not. In the verbal fluency task, the subject was asked to generate in her mind as many words as possible from an indicated category (such as names of sports or fruits) during a 24-s trial. After each trial, there was a 24-s visual fixation condition. The task and fixation condition were alternately performed 10 times. In the hand grip task, the patient was asked to make the hand grip movement with her paretic hand every 2 s during a 24-s period. The hand grip task and visual fixation condition were alternately performed 10 times.

Imaging data acquisition and analysis

The functional MRI experiment was conducted using a 3.0-T MRI scanner (MAGNETOM Trio, Siemens, Erlangen, Germany). Functional images were acquired using a T2*-weighted echo planar imaging sequence (TR/TE/FA/FOV/voxel size/slice number = 3000 ms/30 ms/90°/192 mm/3.0 mm × 3.0 mm × 3.0 mm/46 axial slices for the mental calculation task, and 2000 ms/40 ms/80°/192 mm/3.0 mm × 3.0 mm × 4.0 mm/25 axial for the digit memory task). A total of 143 and 205 functional images on each mental calculation and digit memory task were collected during each session. The first three and five images of each task were discarded from data analysis to allow for the stabilization of the magnetization. Eighty-three images were obtained on each verbal fluency and hand grip task and the first three images were discarded. A high-resolution structural T1 image was acquired using a Magnetization Prepared Rapid Acquisition in Gradient Echo (MPRAGE) sequence.

SPM8 software (Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology, London, UK) was used for image processing and analysis. The T1 image was spatially normalized to fit a Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) template (Evans et al., 1993). The damaged regions were masked to reduce the influence from non-brain or lesioned tissue (Brett et al., 2001). For functional images, the data were first realigned to the mean functional images in order to reduce the effect of head motion. These images were then normalized to the MNI template, with the same parameter obtained for T1 normalization. Then, the images were spatially smoothed using an isotropic Gaussian kernel of 6-mm full-width half maximum (FWHM).

Statistical analysis

Statistical analysis of the time course data at each voxel was conducted with a general linear model in order to identify voxels that showed task-specific and session-specific signal changes (Friston et al., 1994). The brain activities in the mental calculation and digit memory tasks were analyzed separately.

For the mental calculation task, one-digit and two-digit calculation tasks were separately modeled as regressors on each session with boxcar functions convolved with a hemodynamic response function. For the digit memory task, the presentations of the target and test sequences, and the delay period, were separately modeled on each session using three boxcar functions convolved with a hemodynamic response function. For the verbal fluency and hand grip task, the task period was modeled using three boxcar functions convolved with a hemodynamic response function. In all tasks, head-movement parameters were also included as regressors of no interest.

To test hypotheses about regionally specific task-effects or session-effects, the estimates for each model parameter were compared with the linear contrasts. The resulting set of voxel values constituted a statistical parametric map of the t statistic, SPM{t}. In all tasks, the statistical threshold was set at p < 0.001 at the voxel level. Control for multiple comparisons was achieved at the cluster level with Gaussian random field theory either in the whole brain (p corr < 0.05) or the small volume around the coordinates of the regions of interest (ROIs) based on the published papers (p svc < 0.05). On the basis of previous works on abacus experts (Tanaka et al., 2002Hanakawa et al., 2003), spherical ROIs (r = 8 mm) were created at the peak voxel in the bilateral SPL (left x = −18, y = −66, z = 60; right x = 14, y = −66, z = 64 at MNI coordinate), left IPL (x = −46, y = −40, z = 54), left PMd (x = −32, y = −6, z = 52), and Broca’s area (x = −50, y = 10, z = 26).

Experiment 2

Behavioral evaluation in mental abacus use

A behavioral experiment using interference paradigms was conducted to examine whether the patient would utilize the mental abacus strategy on a digit memory task 13 months after her stroke (Figure 10A). The behavioral paradigm was based on Hatta et al. (1989). She performed a delayed digit recall task. First, a target digit sequence was presented on the computer screen for 3 s. The length of the target digit sequence was eight, which was one-digit shorter than her maximum digit span memory capacity. After a 15-s retention interval, she was asked to recall and report the digit sequence orally. There were three experimental conditions which differed according to the types of visual distractors. Pictures of abacus figures, human faces, or gray rectangles were presented on the center of the screen during the retention interval. Each distractor stimulus was presented for 1 s with 0.5 s inter-stimulus intervals. She performed 15 trials for each distractor condition. We hypothesized that if she utilized a mental abacus for the digit memory task, the presentation of the pictures of abacus figures would interfere with task performance more than the presentation of the human faces and gray rectangles.

Results

Structural MRI

The T1-weighted MRI showed a right fronto-parietal lesion, involving the posterior parts of the inferior and superior frontal gyrus, anterior insula, anterior cingulate gyrus, pre and post central gyrus, and supramarginal gyrus (Figure 4). These lesioned areas included the right PMd and IPL, which were dominantly activated during the mental calculation and digit memory tasks in the previous functional MRI studies of abacus experts (Tanaka et al., 2002Hanakawa et al., 2003Chen et al., 2006Ku et al., 2012). The lesion was not observed in the left hemisphere.

 
FIGURE 4
www.frontiersin.org

Figure 4. T1-weighted structural MRI of the patient. The lesion was observed in the fronto-parietal cortex, including the posterior parts of the inferior and superior frontal gyrus, anterior insula, anterior cingulate gyrus, pre and post central gyrus, and supramarginal gyrus. No lesion was observed in the left hemisphere.

 

     Sharing in twitter Sharing in facebook

List Update Delete


Prev, Next
Prev About Abacus 2016-09-26
Next Abacus Education 2016-09-26