Published: 27 July 2021

Predicting maths ability

Research by Surrey colleagues, in a team with researchers from the University of Oxford and Swansea University has shown that levels of neurotransmitters in the brain can predict maths ability.

The two neurotransmitters, GABA and glutamate, have complementary roles -- GABA inhibits neurons, while glutamate makes them more active. The study also found that the relationships between the two neurotransmitters and arithmetic fluency switched as children develop into adults.

Levels of brain excitement or inhibition are thought to be related to learning, especially during critical periods. However, little is known about how they are related to complex learning that can take place over decades. To address this issue, the researchers measured the levels of GABA and glutamate in 255 people, ranging from 6-year-olds to university students. The participants also took two maths achievement tests, and their performance on the arithmetic problems was correlated with the GABA and glutamate levels

Researchers found that among young people, higher GABA levels in the left intraparietal sulcus of the brain (a fold in the top, left, back part of the brain) were associated with greater maths fluency, while the reverse was true for glutamate. In adults, the results were almost exactly the opposite; low GABA concentrations were related to greater maths fluency, and again, the reverse was true for glutamate. Participants were tested twice about 18 months apart; therefore, researchers were also able to show that neurotransmitter levels at the time of the first test could predict maths achievement at a later date.

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