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Relationships Between Aptitudes and Brain Areas

The Foundation’s founder and namesake, Johnson O’Connor, had an abiding interest in the biological substrate of individual differences in aptitudes. In late 2006 at a professional research conference, David Ransom, exploring how our founder’s vision could be pursued by funding an outside researcher through the Johnson O’Connor Research Support Corporation, discussed with Dr. Richard Haier, a leading researcher on brain imaging and intelligence, the possibility of relating the volumes of defined brain areas measured with structural magnetic resonance imaging (sMRI) to performance on Johnson O’Connor aptitude tests. In the spring of 2007 Dr. Haier agreed to work on such a study, and in conjunction with Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, to conduct sMRI scans of 40 Foundation examinees, under the supervision of Dr. Cheuk Tang.

In the summer of 2007 a sample of Foundation clients aged 18 to 35 was recruited to participate in the study by having scans completed at Mt. Sinai. These examinees were selected in two ways. First, a solicitation letter was sent to former clients tested in New York in the previous year and a half. Second, new examinees were recruited in person when they came in for testing.

In January 2008 the goal of 40 examinees with completed sMRI scans and Johnson O’Connor test scores was met. Dr. Tang sent the brain-scan data for the examinees to Dr. Haier, and Chris Condon sent along the corresponding aptitude test data. Working with the sMRI scans, Dr. Haier used recently-developed technology called “voxel-based morphometry” to identify various brain areas and measure the volume of gray and white matter in each area.

Although the data analyses are still at an early stage, Dr. Haier has presented some fascinating initial findings. The accompanying figure shows brain areas that are related to indexes derived from spatial and numerical aptitudes. As can be seen, there is a stark contrast in the two types of thinking in relation to brain areas highlighted. There is also evidence of a variety of brain areas involved in each category. In future analyses the relationship of brain volumes to other aptitudes will be investigated and the results of the study compared with the findings of other investigators.

David H. Schroeder, Ph.D. & Christopher A. Condon, Ph.D

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