Neurotransmitter Levels Predict Math Ability

Summary: A new study found a person’s math ability was linked to levels of GABA and glutamate in the brain. In children, greater math fluency was associated with higher GABA levels in the left intraparietal sulcus, while lower levels of GABA were linked to math ability in adults. The reverse was true for glutamate in both children and adults.

Source: PLOS

The neurotransmitters GABA and glutamate have complementary roles — GABA inhibits neurons, while glutamate makes them more active.

Published 22nd July in PLOS Biology, researchers led by Roi Cohen Kadosh and George Zacharopoulos from the University of Oxford show that levels of these two neurotransmitters in the intraparietal sulcus of the brain can predict mathematics ability.

The study also found that the relationships between the two neurotransmitters and arithmetic fluency switched as children developed into adults.

Levels of brain excitement/inhibition are thought to be related to learning, especially during critical periods. However, little is known about how they are related to complex learning that can take place over decades. To address this issue, the researchers measured the levels of GABA and glutamate in 255 people, ranging from 6-year-olds to university students. The participants also took two math achievement tests, and their performance on the arithmetic problems were correlated with the GABA and glutamate levels.

This shows brain scans from the study
Scanning was completed both during Time 1 and Time 2 (approximately 1.5 years later) in each of the 5 age groups (6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, 14-year-olds, 16-year-olds, and 18+-year-olds). Credit: Zacharopoulos G, et al., 2021, PLOS Biology

The team found that among young people, higher GABA levels in the left intraparietal sulcus of the brain (a fold in the top, left, back part of the brain) were associated with greater math fluency, while the reverse was true for glutamate. In adults, the results were almost exactly opposite; low GABA concentrations were related to greater math fluency, and again, the reverse was true for glutamate. Because the participants were tested twice about 1.5 years apart, the researchers were also able to show that neurotransmitter levels at the time of the first test could predict math achievement at the later date.

Much of what we know about GABA, glutamate, and learning comes from rodent experiments in the lab, which cannot say anything directly about natural school-based skills such as mathematics that develop over time. This longitudinal study in humans will help researchers better understand the relationship between learning and brain plasticity, particularly during critical periods that might span years.

Cohen Kadosh adds, “Our finding of developmental switches in the link between GABA and glutamate and academic achievement highlights a general, unknown principle of plasticity. In contrast to previous studies on humans or animals that focused on narrower developmental stages, our cross-sectional-longitudinal study suggests that the link between plasticity and brain excitation and inhibition across different stages is unlikely to be immutable. Our findings have also important implications for the development of brain-based interventional programs, which we hope to examine in the future.”

About this math and neuroscience research news

Source: PLOS
Contact: Press Office – PLOS
Image: The image is credited to Zacharopoulos G, et al., 2021, PLOS Biology

Original Research: Open access.
Predicting learning and achievement using GABA and glutamate concentrations in human development” by Zacharopoulos G, Sella F, Cohen Kadosh K, Hartwright C, Emir U, Cohen Kadosh R. PLOS Biology


Predicting learning and achievement using GABA and glutamate concentrations in human development

Previous research has highlighted the role of glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in learning and plasticity. What is currently unknown is how this knowledge translates to real-life complex cognitive abilities that emerge slowly and how the link between these neurotransmitters and human learning and plasticity is shaped by development. While some have suggested a generic role of glutamate and GABA in learning and plasticity, others have hypothesized that their involvement shapes sensitive periods during development.

Here we used a cross-sectional longitudinal design with 255 individuals (spanning primary school to university) to show that glutamate and GABA in the intraparietal sulcus explain unique variance both in current and future mathematical achievement (approximately 1.5 years).

Furthermore, our findings reveal a dynamic and dissociable role of GABA and glutamate in predicting learning, which is reversed during development, and therefore provide novel implications for models of learning and plasticity during childhood and adulthood.

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