A (very simplified) summary of an Oxford study

Thursday 9th December 2021

A mathematical study by Oxford study – The impact of a lack of mathematical education on brain development and future attainmentOpens a new window by George Zacharopolus, Francesco Sella, and Roi Cohen Kadosh – has found a link between a chemical compound in the brain, and problem-solving skills developed from studying maths. Students who studied maths post-16 had more of this chemical in their brain than students who didn't.

The chemical, called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), is found in the middle frontal gyrus of the brain. The team used a technique called H-magnetic resonance spectroscopy to scan this region of the brain. GABA is a main determinant of neuroplasticity and cognitive functions.

The researchers noticed decreased levels of GABA concentration in the brain helped to identify which students were studying maths at level 3. Therefore, the researchers hypothesized a lack of previous mathematical education led to lower GABA concentration.

For control, the team looked at students during their maths A level, and a second group of students who had decided their subjects but not yet started their course.


Student who didn't study maths post-16 scored lower in numerical tests and mathematical reasoning scores than those who did. Using GABA levels, the team classified students as to whether they were studying maths at level 3, and found lower GABA concentrations increased the chances that a student lacked maths education.

The team also assessed pre-A level students who hadn't chosen to pursue maths, and hadn't yet started the academic year. The results were the same. Sample groups were reassessed nineteen months later and also gave similar results. The team controlled for previous education, gender, and other A level subjects.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that maths ability successfully classified whether maths was pursued, however maths anxiety did not.

The paper concludes that GABA levels predict future mathematical attainment. Students with enhanced GABA concentration received an advanced maths education, whereas students with lower levels didn't. Students with elevated GABA levels shifted circuits in the brain from static to plastic with a longer duration of plasticity.

GABA levels increase from learning problem solving at a young age, and from continuous reinforcement. GABA is critical to cognitive thinking, so problem-solving events and workshops hosted by the AMSP and the Maths Hubs are critical for students to develop GABA levels in their brain.

The paper also looked at another region of the brain and the chemical glutamate. You can view full details on the tests conducted, information on GABA and neurotransmitters, statistics, graphs, and references in the full paperOpens a new window.

By Ingela Ambreen

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