Mathematical Ability & Neurotransmitters

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Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate are two major neurotransmitters that are found in our brains. These two neurotransmitters work together to control several processes: GABA inhibits neurons, and glutamate makes neurons more active. In a study published in July 2021, researchers from the University of Oxford demonstrated that these neurotransmitters are involved in predicting mathematical ability. The study also illustrated that the relationship between the neurotransmitters and math ability switched as children developed into adults. 

While it is not a new discovery, that levels of brain inhibition and excitement are related to learning in critical periods, not a lot of research has been done relating to how this is connected to complex learning over an extended period of time. In this particular study, researchers measured the levels of the two neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate in 255 people, whose ages ranged from 6 years old all the way up to university-age. In addition to their neurotransmitter level measurements, the participants also completed two math achievement tests in which their performance on arithmetic problems was measured and correlated to the neurotransmitter levels. 

What the researchers found was that in young people, higher GABA levels in their left intraparietal sulcus of the brain were associated with greater math fluency, while the opposite was found to be true for glutamate. However, what is interesting is that, within adults, the results were almost completely reversed – low GABA concentrations being related to greater math fluency, and an opposite correlation with glutamate. It is important to note that the participants were tested on their arithmetic ability twice, around 1 and a half years apart, which meant that the researchers were able to demonstrate that the levels of GABA and glutamate at the time of the first test could predict their future achievement.

The two Scanning Sessions at different ages. Source: Zacharopoulos G, et al., 2021, PLOS Biology

A lot of what is known so far about glutamate and GABA has derived from lab experiments involving rodents, which do not directly translate to skills, such as mathematical ability, that generally develop over time. Therefore, this study will help future researchers to gain a deeper understanding between learning and our brains’ plasticity during critical periods which could take years. One of the researchers, Cohen Kadosh, added that “our findings have important implications for the development of brain-based interventional programs, which we hope to examine in the future”. 

Sources:

Original Source: https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3001325 

Images

Image 1: https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article/figure?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3001325.g001

Featured Image: https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/were-you-born-with-a-math-brain

Edited by Cyrus Rohani-Shukla

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