Bad at math? Now you can blame your neurotransmitters. Research by a team from the University of Surrey, University of Oxford and Swansea University has shown that neurotransmitter levels in the brain can predict maths ability, suggesting brain chemistry might make maths an easy option for some people.
The study recruited 255 subjects spanning six-year-olds in primary school to university students concentrating on two neurotransmitters, Glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). They are known to play a complementary role in brain plasticity and learning. GABA inhibits neurons, while glutamate makes them more active. The research published in the journal PLOS Biology shows that levels of these two neurotransmitters in the intraparietal sulcus of the brain can predict mathematics ability.
If you want to test your cognitive abilities and try to train your brain, you can take these free IQ test with instant results, and evaluate your numerical reasoning and logical skills.
During the study, participants took two math achievement tests, and their performance on the arithmetic problems was correlated with the GABA and glutamate levels. The results showed that among young people, higher GABA levels and low Glutamate levels in the left intraparietal sulcus of the brain are associated with greater math fluency. However, in adults, the results were the opposite; low GABA concentrations were related to greater math fluency, and again, the reverse was true for glutamate.
However, levels of both neurotransmitters in the MFG did not associate with math skills.
The participants were tested twice, about 1.5 years apart; the researchers were also able to show that neurotransmitter levels at the time of the first test could predict math achievement later.
This study aims at helping researchers better understand the relationship between learning and brain plasticity, particularly during critical periods that might span over the years. But the reason behind these differences in brain chemistry between older and younger students is yet ambiguous. According to researchers, “GABA and glutamate concentrations enhance or constrain the plasticity of a given cognitive function depending on the sensitive period of that cognitive function.”
Roi Cohen Kadosh, one of the researchers, working on the study, says
“Our finding of developmental switches in the link between GABA and Glutamate and academic achievement highlights a general, unknown principle of plasticity. 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.”
In addition, Cohen also says that math education helps stimulate the development of key brain regions. More research will be conducted on whether such learning involvement can benefit those not interested in math, so these brain regions still get the required developmental training.
“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.