The new study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, included 255 participants ranging in age from six years old to university students. The study focused on glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), two neurotransmitters that are known to have a role in brain plasticity and learning. The focus was on two brain areas associated with mathematical ability – the left intraparietal sulcus (IPS) and the left middle frontal gyrus (MFG) – based on previous studies.
The results were fascinatingly contradictory. Good GABA levels and low glutamate levels in the left IPS were consistently related to high math skills in the youngest participants. However, in the older university cohort, low GABA and high glutamate were associated with excellent mathematical ability. Both neurotransmitter levels in the MFG were unrelated to arithmetic abilities.
The group was examined twice over 18 months, allowing researchers to investigate if neurotransmitter levels might predict future mathematical competence. Neurotransmitter levels effectively predicted one’s achievement on math exams performed a year and a half later, it worked.
The causes for these variations in brain chemistry between older and younger kids are unknown at this time. “GABA and glutamate concentrations boost or restrict the plasticity of a specific cognitive function depending on the sensitive period of that cognitive function,” the researchers believe.
High GABA levels may therefore boost arithmetic abilities in young children at a key time of brain development, whereas comparable high GABA levels later in life may impair the same math skills. One of the study’s researchers, Roi Cohen Kadosh, believes that the discovery of this developmental transition indicates an undiscovered shift in brain plasticity that happens during adolescence.
“Our discovery of developmental changes in the connection between GABA and glutamate and academic success reveals a broad, undiscovered concept of plasticity.
Unlike earlier research on people or animals that focused on specific developmental phases, our cross-sectional-longitudinal analysis shows that the relationship between plasticity and brain excitation and inhibition is unlikely to remain unchangeable across stages.”
GABA levels in the middle frontal gyrus (MFG) of 14 to 18-year-olds were studied in another recent study by the same research team. According to the findings, MFG GABA levels could accurately identify whether a student was currently studying math or had dropped out years before.
According to Cohen Kadosh, this might imply that arithmetic education can aid in the development of critical brain areas. More study will be done to see if specific learning strategies may assist youngsters who are less engaged in arithmetic to receive the developmental workout they require.
Cohen Kadosh explains,
“Not every teenager loves arithmetic, so we need to look into other options, including logic and reasoning training, which engages the same brain region as math.”