Does studying math help brain development?

Overseas-education | 15 Jun 2021

Most people can go a long time without thinking about gamma-aminobutyric acid.

However, this neurotransmitter is essential for brain and cognitive development, as well as brain plasticity.

A recent study from the University of Oxford has found that levels of this chemical are lower in students who stop studying maths at the age of sixteen.

In the UK, unlike other parts of the world, students are not obliged to study the subject beyond the point.

Students pursuing A Levels internationally can also drop the subject. The reduction in the chemical was found - understandably - in the area of the brain that support maths, memory, learning, reasoning and problem solving.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved over 130 students aged between the ages of 14 and 18.

Students under the age of 16 were asked if they planned to stop studying maths. Those over the age of 16 were asked if they had already given up the subject.

Each participant underwent a brain scan and a cognitive assessment.

The process was repeated 19 months later. Researchers were able to identify which students had stopped studying maths based on the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid present.

There was no discernible change in students who continued the subject.

Lead researcher Roi Cohen Kadosh highlights the study's significance.

"Adolescence is an important period in life that is associated with important brain and cognitive changes. Sadly, the opportunity to stop studying maths at this age seems to lead to a gap between adolescents who stop their maths education compared to those who continue it.

"Our study provides a new level of biological understanding of the impact of education on the developing brain and the mutual effect between biology and education.

"It is not yet known how this disparity, or its long term implications, can be prevented."

Researchers warned it could put affected students at a disadvantage.

It is important to note the preliminary nature of the study and the limited cohort.

Scientists also experience significant pressure to emphasize the significance of such expensive studies.

These results represent useful groundwork, not paradigm-shifting understanding.

It is not yet known, for example, if the change is reversible.

A child who gives up math may struggle to reintroduce the subject - perhaps if they drop the subject for A Level but then choose an undergraduate subject requiring some math classes.

We should all expect to get rusty if we don't practice. It is not yet clear if levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid will increase if a child reintroduces maths.

Yes, the neurotransmitter is essential for development, but cognitive development is an ongoing and elastic process.

Given that adult brain-training is now a multibillion dollar global industry, there are a lot of people hoping that the kind of change shown in the young people involved in this study is not irreparable.

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