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Bad at math? Blame your neurotransmitters

A new brain imaging study explored how different levels of the brain’s excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters are linked to math abilities.
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Key Takeaways
  • Glutamate and GABA are neurotransmitters that help regulate brain activity.
  • Scientists have long known that both are important to learning and neuroplasticity, but their relationship to acquiring complex cognitive skills like math has remained unclear.
  • The new study shows that having certain levels of these neurotransmitters predict math performance, but that these levels switch with age.

Why do roughly one in five people find math especially difficult?

You might blame teaching methods, which some argue explains why the U.S. lags behind other countries in standardized math test scores. You could point to math anxiety, which affects about 20 percent of students and 25 percent of teachers, according to surveys. And there are also medical conditions that make math difficult, such as dyscalculia, a learning disability that disrupts the normal development of arithmetic skills.

But another explanation centers on neurotransmitters. In a new study published in PLOS Biology, researchers explored how the brain’s levels of GABA and glutamate relate to math abilities over time in students of varying ages. The results showed that levels of these neurotransmitters can predict students’ performance on math tests. However, this relationship seems to flip as people get older.

GABA and glutamate are responsible for regulating brain activity. In the mature brain, GABA is the brain’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter, helping to block impulses between nerve cells in the brain, which can calm feelings of stress, anxiety, or fear. GABA is made from glutamate, the brain’s major excitatory neurotransmitter that helps send signals throughout the central nervous system.

Researchers have long known that these neurotransmitters play crucial roles in learning, development, and neuroplasticity. That is partly because they are thought to help trigger developmental windows (or “sensitive periods”) during which neural systems become more plastic and better able to acquire certain cognitive skills.

“Importantly, sensitive periods vary for different functions, with relatively simple abilities (e.g., sensorimotor integration) occurring earlier in development, while the sensitive period for acquiring more complex cognitive functions extends into the third decade of life,” the researchers wrote.

GABA, glutamate, and math

Still, the exact relationship between GABA, glutamate, and complex cognitive functions has remained unclear. The new study explored that relationship by focusing on associations between the neurotransmitters and math abilities, which “provides a unique cognitive model to examine these questions due to its protracted skill acquisition period that starts already from early childhood and can continue for nearly two decades,” the researchers wrote.

For the study, the researchers measured levels of GABA and glutamate in the left intraparietal sulcus (IPS) of 255 students, ranging from primary school to college. The participants completed a math test as their brains were imaged. About a year and a half later, the participants repeated the same process.

“The longitudinal design allowed us to further examine whether neurotransmitter concentration is linked to MA [mathematical abilities] as well as predict MA in the future,” the researchers wrote. “Crucially, adopting this design allowed us to discern the selective effect of glutamate and GABA in response to natural (i.e., learning in school) rather than artificial environmental stimulation, thus allowing us to test the knowledge gained from lab-based experiments in high ecological settings.”

The results suggest that GABA and glutamate play an important role in math abilities, but that the dynamic switches with age. For the young participants, higher GABA levels in the IPS were associated with higher scores on math tests. The opposite was observed among older students: higher glutamate levels correlated with higher scores. Both results held true on subsequent math tests.

Although the study sheds light on how neurotransmitter levels at different stages of development contribute to learning some cognitive skills, like math, the researchers noted that acquiring other skills may involve different processes.

“Our findings may also highlight a general principle that the developmental dynamics of regional excitation and inhibition levels in regulating the sensitive period and plasticity of a given high-level cognitive function (i.e., MA) may be different compared to another high-level cognitive function (i.e., general intelligence) that draws on similar, albeit not identical, cognitive and neural mechanisms,” they wrote.


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