Neuroscientific insights into the development of analogical reasoning.
Analogical reasoning, or the ability to find correspondences between entities based on shared relationships, supports knowledge acquisition. As such, the development of this ability during childhood is thought to promote learning. Here, we sought to better understand the mechanisms by which analogical reasoning about semantic relations improves over childhood and adolescence (e.g. chalk is to chalkboard as pen is to…?). We hypothesized that age-related differences would manifest as differences in the brain regions associated with one or more of the following cognitive functions: (1) controlled semantic retrieval, or the ability to retrieve task-relevant semantic associations; (2) response control, or the ability to override the tendency to respond to a salient distractor; and/or (3) relational integration, or the ability to consider jointly two mental relations. In order to test these hypotheses, we analyzed patterns of fMRI activation during performance of a pictorial propositional analogy task across 95 typically developing children between the ages of 6 and 18 years old. Despite large age-related differences in task performance, particularly over ages 6-10 but through to around age 14, participants across the whole age range recruited a common network of frontal, parietal and temporal regions. However, activation in a brain region that has been implicated in controlled semantic retrieval - left anterior prefrontal cortex (BA 47/45) - was positively correlated with age, and also with performance after controlling for age. This finding indicates that improved performance over middle childhood and early adolescence on this analogical reasoning task is driven largely by improvements in the ability to selectively retrieve task-relevant semantic relationships.