Are today’s math teachers and arithmetic geniuses born with a biological advantage? Seeking to explore this possibility, a new study began to discover whether an individual’s mathematical ability was associated with concentrations of two essential neurotransmitters involved in learning.
The researchers, led by Roi Cohen Kadosh, a professor of cognitive neuroscience, and George Zacharopoulos of Oxford University in the United Kingdom, analyzed the levels of GABA and glutamate in the brain to see if these neurotransmitters could predict future mathematical ability.
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GABA and glutamate are naturally occurring amino acids that have complementary functions: the former inhibits or reduces the activity of neurons or nerve cells in the brain, while the latter makes them more active. Its levels vary throughout life.
“We focused on GABA and glutamate as we know these neurotransmitters are key players in neuroplasticity, learning and cognition. We chose math skill as it is a complex cognitive skill that takes years (if at all) to gain real knowledge. This combination made the experiment really interesting as we were able to see how GABA and glutamate are involved in a complex cognitive skill that takes years to mature,” said Dr. Kadosh, in an interview with Medical News Today.
Kadosh and his colleagues not only found a link, they also found that the levels of these neurotransmitters changed as children grew into adults.
As part of the study, the researchers took 255 participants, ages 6 and university-level, to two math achievement tests 1.5 years apart and analyzed their performance.
They then correlated the test results with the levels of GABA and glutamate in their brains.
Children who had higher levels of GABA in a region of the brain called the left intraparietal sulcus (IPS) scored higher on math tests. On the other hand, those with high glutamate on the IPS had lower test scores.
However, for adults, scientists have noticed the exact opposite.
Those with high levels of glutamate in their brains had better scores on their math tests and those with high concentrations of GABA had lower scores.
After testing participants twice and 1.5 years apart, the researchers found that adults with lower GABA scored high on the first math test and did well on the second test as well.
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