The math brain: Scientists find two predictive neurotransmitters

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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.

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.

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