Math ability predicted by measuring neurotransmitter levels
Do you have a brain for math? New research indicates levels of two key neurotransmitters can predict mathematics ability, suggesting brain chemistry may be playing a role in those who find math easy.
The new study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, recruited 255 subjects spanning six-year olds in primary school to university students. The research focused on two neurotransmitters known to play a role in brain plasticity and learning – glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Based on prior research, the focus was on two brain regions linked with mathematical abilities – the left intraparietal sulcus (IPS) and the left middle frontal gyrus (MFG).
The results were intriguingly discordant. In the youngest subjects high GABA levels and low glutamate levels in the left IPS were consistently associated with high math skills. But in the older university cohort the exact opposite was seen; low GABA and high glutamate were linked with strong mathematical abilities. Levels of both neurotransmitters in the MFG did not associate with math skills.
The cohort was tested twice over 18 months allowing the researchers to see if these neurotransmitter levels could predict mathematical ability into the future. And it worked, with neurotransmitter levels effectively predicting one’s success on math tests completed a year and a half later.
At this stage the reasons behind these differences in brain chemistry between older and younger students is unclear. The researchers hypothesize that “GABA and glutamate concentrations enhance or constrain the plasticity of a given cognitive function depending on the sensitive period of that cognitive function.”
So it is possible high GABA levels can enhance mathematical ability in young children during a critical period of brain development, while similar high GABA levels can impair those same math skills in later life. Roi Cohen Kadosh, one of the researchers working on the study, says the discovery of this developmental switch points to an unknown shift in brain plasticity that occurs at some point during adolescence.
“Our finding of developmental switches in the link between GABA and glutamate and academic achievement highlights a general, unknown principle of plasticity,” says Cohen Kadosh. “In contrast to previous studies on humans or animals that focused on narrower developmental stages, our cross-sectional-longitudinal study suggests that the link between plasticity and brain excitation and inhibition across different stages is unlikely to be immutable.”
Another recent study from the same research team looked specifically at GABA levels in middle frontal gyrus (MFG) of 14 to 18 year olds. That research indicated MFG GABA levels could effectively predict whether a student was still studying maths or had ceased that subject years prior.
Cohen Kadosh says this may indicate math education can help stimulate the development of key brain regions. Further research will work on whether certain learning interventions can help those children less interested in math so these brain regions still get the developmental workout they need.
“Not every adolescent enjoys maths so we need to investigate possible alternatives, such as training in logic and reasoning that engage the same brain area as maths,” says Cohen Kadosh.
The new research was published in the journal PLOS Biology.