Friday, April 06, 2007

Motor cortex for the hand and numerical counting

The April 2007 issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience has interesting articles on this topic by Andres et al. and Sato et al. Their abstracts:

Andres et al.
The finding that number processing activates a cortical network partly overlapping that recruited for hand movements has renewed interest in the relationship between number and finger representations. Further evidence about a possible link between fingers and numbers comes from developmental studies showing that finger movements play a crucial role in learning counting. However, increased activity in hand motor circuits during counting may unveil unspecific processes, such as shifting attention, reciting number names, or matching items with a number name. To address this issue, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation to measure changes in corticospinal (CS) excitability during a counting task performed silently and using either numbers or letters of the alphabet to enumerate items. We found an increased CS excitability of hand muscles during the counting task, irrespective of the use of numbers or letters, whereas it was unchanged in arm and foot muscles. Control tasks allowed us to rule out a possible influence of attention allocation or covert speech on CS excitability increase of hand muscles during counting. The present results support a specific involvement of hand motor circuits in counting because no CS changes were found in arm and foot muscles during the same task. However, the contribution of hand motor areas is not exclusively related to number processing because an increase in CS excitability was also found when letters were used to enumerate items. This finding suggests that hand motor circuits are involved whenever items have to be put in correspondence with the elements of any ordered series.

Sato et al.
Developmental and cross-cultural studies show that finger counting represents one of the basic number learning strategies. However, despite the ubiquity of such an embodied strategy, the issue of whether there is a neural link between numbers and fingers in adult, literate individuals remains debated. Here, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation to study changes of excitability of hand muscles of individuals performing a visual parity judgment task, a task not requiring counting, on Arabic numerals from 1 to 9. Although no modulation was observed for the left hand muscles, an increase in amplitude of motor-evoked potentials was found for the right hand muscles. This increase was specific for smaller numbers (1 to 4) as compared to larger numbers (6 to 9). These findings indicate a close relationship between hand/finger and numerical representations.

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