Opting out of advanced math education alters adolescents’ neural development, study finds

A brain imaging study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found evidence that missing out on math education can alter neural development. Young adults who had chosen not to pursue advanced math had lower levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) within the middle frontal gyrus when compared to students who were continuing their math education. Importantly, these changes were not evident prior to students’ decision to continue math or not.

While the disadvantages of a lack of education have been well established, the impact of missing out on a specific type of learning is less clear. Study authors George Zacharopoulos and his team proposed that a lack of math education might be associated with neural changes in particular brain regions that are implicated in mathematics.

The researchers hypothesized that they would observe reduced GABA, an excitatory neurotransmitter, among students lacking math education. Given evidence that the left frontoparietal regions are strongly implicated in mathematical learning, they expected to see these differences in these areas — specifically the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) and the middle frontal gyrus (MFG).

In the United Kingdom, adolescents as young as 16 can make the decision not to pursue math at the advanced level. Zacharopoulos and his colleagues saw an ideal opportunity to explore the neural repercussions of opting out of math by studying UK adolescents.

A first study involved 87 A-level students in the UK, between the ages of 16 and 18. A-levels are advanced qualifications that students can choose to pursue in preparation for university. This cohort included 49 students who were studying A-level math and 38 who were not studying A-level math. All students took part in a brain imaging session where magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) was used to scan the IPS and the MFG regions of the brain.

The scans revealed differences in neurotransmitter concentrations among students who were studying advanced math versus those who were not. Students who were not studying advanced math had reduced GABA concentrations in the MFG compared to those who had continued their math education. Moreover, these GABA levels predicted whether or not a student was studying math over and above students’ math ability, math anxiety, or the total number of A-levels a student was enrolled in. Additionally, GABA concentration did not predict students’ enrollment in other subjects usually taken by math students like biology, chemistry, and physics, suggesting the effect was specific to math education.

The researchers next tested whether these neural differences might reflect baseline differences that were already present before the decision whether or not to pursue math. A second study was conducted among UK math students who had already chosen whether or not to pursue A-level math, but who were still currently studying math.

This time, the researchers found no significant differences in the GABA levels of students who had decided to pursue math and those who had decided not to. This suggests that the neural differences they found in the first study were not biomarkers but were evidence of neural plasticity, with math education affecting development in the middle frontal gyrus.

Moreover, the researchers also found that GABA concentration within the MFG predicted students’ future scores on a test of mathematical reasoning taken 19 months later, suggesting these GABA levels represent “neural priming for better skill acquisition of math.”

The study authors say their findings highlight the reciprocal relationship between brain development and education, noting that while some countries hold advanced math as a required school subject, others do not. “We show that within a society such decisions can alter neural and cognitive development. This, in turn, can introduce an advantage to individuals and societies who introduced math education as mandatory until school graduation,” Zacharopoulos and his team report. “In addition, one might further consider how the differences in opportunities to access education, as reflected especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, might impact neural and cognitive development.”

The study, “The impact of a lack of mathematical education on brain development and future attainment”, was authored by George Zacharopoulos, Francesco Sella, and Roi Cohen Kadosh.



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