Two key neurotransmitters linked to math ability

A child presses the buttons of a calculator with a pencil to solve problems in a math book.Share on Pinterest
Researchers have found a link between two key neurotransmitters and math ability. Bob Rowan/Getty Images
  • An individual’s math abilitymay have links to levels of two chemical messengers — gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate — in the brain, a study suggests.
  • To determine this, scientists measured the levels of these neurotransmitters in children and adults and correlated them with test scores.
  • Children who were good at math were likely to have higher GABA and lower glutamate levels in their brains.
  • Meanwhile, the reverse was true for adults: lower GABA and higher glutamate levels reflected greater math ability.
  • The findings suggest that neurotransmitter levels in the brain might predict future math ability.

Could today’s math professors and arithmetic geniuses have been born with a biological advantage?

Seeking to explore this possibility, a new study set out to find whether an individual’s math ability was associated with concentrations of two key neurotransmitters involved in learning.

The researchers, led by Roi Cohen Kadosh, professor of cognitive neuroscience, and George Zacharopoulos from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, looked into GABA and glutamate levels in the brain to see if these neurotransmitters could predict mathematics ability for the future.

GABA and glutamate are both naturally occurring amino acids that have complementary roles: the former inhibits or reduces the activity of neurons or nerve cells in the brain, while the latter makes them more active. Their levels fluctuate across the lifespan.

“We focused on GABA and glutamate as it is known that these neurotransmitters are key players in neuroplasticity, learning, and cognition. We chose mathematical ability as it is a complex cognitive skill that takes years (if at all) to gain real expertise. This combination made the experiment really interesting as we could see how GABA and glutamate are involved in a complex cognitive skill that takes years to mature,” said Dr. Kadosh, speaking to Medical News Today.

Kadosh and his colleagues not only found a link but also found that levels of these neurotransmitters switched as children grew into adults.

Their research appears in the journal PLOS Biology.

As part of the study, the researchers subjected 255 participants, aged 6 to university level, to two math achievement tests, 1.5 years apart, and analyzed their performances.

They then correlated the test results with the GABA and glutamate levels in their brains.

The children who had higher GABA levels in a region of the brain called the left intraparietal sulcus (IPS) scored higher on math tests. Conversely, those with high glutamate in the IPS had lower test scores.

However, for adults, the scientists 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 scored lower.

After testing the participants twice and 1.5 years apart, the researchers found that adults with lower GABA got high marks on the first math test and they did well in the test the second time around, too.

This longitudinal approach the scientists pursued helped them predict math ability for the future.

The findings also show that the levels of GABA and glutamate in the brain switch later around puberty. This suggests that the role these neurotransmitters play differs during a person’s development.

“The results that surprised us the most was that the link between GABA and glutamate and mathematical ability was switched from childhood to adulthood. It tells us that the relationship between GABA and glutamate and skill acquisition/ability is not similar across the developmental stages, and depends on our age.”

– Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh

Commenting on the study, Dr. Santosh Kesari, Ph.D., neuroscientist and neuro-oncologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California said:

“We do know that during brain development things change and the sensitivity of a brain region to a particular neurotransmitter can be affected as the brain develops and one matures. So, even though it is the same transmitter like GABA or glutamate, the effects can be different earlier on in development versus later on in development to how those neurotransmitters may work or affect the brain.”

Dr. Kesari said this shift at an early age may also be a marker indicating that certain people are more prone to improving their mathematical abilities.

The study’s authors say this switch in neurotransmitter levels during development also highlights an “unknown principle of plasticity”.

Brain plasticity, also called neuroplasticity, is the nervous system’s ability to change and rewire its connections and structure in response to stimuli, such as learning, and experience.

The link scientists found between plasticity and brain excitation (via glutamate) and inhibition (via GABA) across different stages of development suggests that this link is not fixed and can change over time, giving us further insight into the process of brain development.

One shortfall of the study is the limited group of participants, which means the findings may not be generalizable to other racial or ethnic groups.

“We do not know [if they are] at this stage. We will need to examine that. I think that the answer will be positive, although it might be that the exact brain region might differ, as the way we teach mathematics could differ from one culture to another,” said Kadosh.

Kesari also pointed out that this study alone also does not propose a way of manipulating these neurotransmitters or how to use this information to make a decision about how better to teach people.

Although we do have drugs that can affect levels of these transmitters, such as antidepressants, the real question is determining whether they would help earlier, later or at specific known disease states, Kesari told MNT.

With that also comes the challenge of not affecting other functions in the brain. As these same neurotransmitters are involved in a complex network of functions, a change to any one of them could have unwanted outcomes if the balance is disrupted.

“You cannot switch the balance of the neurotransmitters and expect only mathematical achievement to improve without potentially causing a negative effect on other issues such as anxiety, depression, mood, etc. This is something that really needs to be further thought about and tested in the future,” said Dr. Kesari.

“[We won’t know] how this would translate into the future until someone does a study where they use a method [analyzing how] it would be neuropsychologically different earlier on versus later on,” he added.

Kadosh said it is best to exercise caution when interpreting this data for real-life applications. Nevertheless, it has opened up an area of great potential.

He told MNT that as their research focused on only healthy children, adolescents, and adults, it was too premature to talk about clinical implications at this stage.

“It would be interesting in the future to see how these results look in those with learning difficulties, and whether manipulation of GABA and/or glutamate could improve learning and education,” he said.

Dr. Kesari, meanwhile, said knowing there is an age dependency could affect how we teach or how we improve mathematical abilities in young and older kids.

“The clinical implications [from this study] really is that how we propose to use this knowledge to improve, for instance, mathematical achievement, will vary depending on the age that you wish to try to predict an intervention that you would want,” he added.

The next steps from this research could be to come up with better strategies to teach and help students learn math and explore the possibility of making learning interventions to improve cognition.

On that note, Kadosh said they hope to examine the development of brain-based interventional programs in the future and added:

“We are working on neurostimulation methods to improve learning and cognition. We examine its application in clinical (children and adults) and non-clinical populations (only adults). Previous studies have suggested that these neurostimulation methods can change GABA and/or glutamate. We hope that this will open ways to improve learning and cognition in those who need that.”

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