Adolescents who stopped studying mathematics had a greater disadvantage – compared to their peers who continued to study mathematics – in terms of brain and cognitive development, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
133 students aged between 14 and 18 took part in an experiment conducted by researchers from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. Unlike most countries in the world, in the UK 16-year-olds can decide to stop studying mathematics. This situation allowed the team to examine whether this specific lack of mathematics instruction in students from a similar background might impact brain and cognitive development.
The study found that students who weren’t studying math had a lower amount of a chemical crucial for brain plasticity (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in a key region of the brain involved in many important cognitive functions, including reasoning, problem solving, math, memory and learning. Based on the amount of brain chemicals found in each student, the researchers were able to distinguish between adolescents who were studying or not studying math, regardless of their cognitive abilities. Additionally, the amount of this brain chemical successfully predicted changes in the mathematical achievement score approximately 19 months later. Notably, the researchers didn’t find any differences in the brain chemical until teens stopped studying math.
King Cohen Kadosh, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford, led the study. He said: “Math skills are associated with a range of benefits, including employment, socioeconomic status, and mental and physical health. Adolescence is an important period in life that is associated with d ‘significant brain and cognitive changes. Unfortunately, the ability to stop studying math at this age appears to lead to a gap between adolescents who drop out of math studies versus those who continue. Our study provides a new level of biological understanding of the impact of education on brain development and of the mutual effect between biology and education.
“It is not yet clear how this disparity, or its long-term implications, can be avoided. Not all teens enjoy math, so we need to explore possible alternatives, such as training in logic and reasoning that engage the same area of the brain as mathematics. “
Professor Cohen Kadosh added, “As we started this line of research before COVID-19, I also wonder how access is reduced to education in general, and math in particular (or lack thereof due to pandemic) has an impact on brain and cognitive development. children and adolescents. While we are still unaware of the long-term influence of this disruption, our study provides important understanding of how the absence of a single component in education, mathematics, can impact brain and behavior.
The study was undertaken by University of Oxford researchers George Zacharopolous, Roi Cohen Kadosh and Francesco Sella (now at the Center for Mathematical Cognition, Loughborough University).
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