Lack of maths education negatively affects adolescent brain and cognitive development

7 June 2021

  • A new study suggests that not having any maths education after the age of 16 can be disadvantageous.
  • Adolescents who stopped studying maths showed a reduction in a critical brain chemical for brain development. This reduction in brain chemical was found in a key brain area that supports maths, memory, learning, reasoning and problem solving.
  • This amount of brain chemical successfully predicted cognitive performance 19 months later.
  • Because many pupils worldwide have/had limited or no access to education during the COVID-19 pandemic, understanding the significance of maths education on brain and cognitive development is particularly pressing.

Adolescents who stopped studying maths exhibited greater disadvantage – compared with peers who continued studying maths – in terms of brain and cognitive development, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

133 students between the ages of 14-18 took part in an experiment run by researchers from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. Unlike the majority of countries worldwide, in the UK 16-year-old students can decide to stop their maths education. This situation allowed the team to examine whether this specific lack of maths education in students coming from a similar environment could impact brain development and cognition.

The study found that students who didn’t study maths had a lower amount of a crucial chemical for brain plasticity (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) in a key brain region involved in many important cognitive functions, including reasoning, problem solving, maths, memory and learning. Based on the amount of brain chemical found in each student, researchers were able to discriminate between adolescents who studied or did not study maths, independent of their cognitive abilities. Moreover, the amount of this brain chemical successfully predicted changes in mathematical attainment score around 19 months later. Notably, the researchers did not find differences in the brain chemical before the adolescents stopped studying maths.

Roi Cohen Kadosh, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, led the study. He said: “Maths 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 important brain and cognitive changes. Sadly, the opportunity to stop studying maths at this age seems to lead to a gap between adolescents who stop their maths education compared to those who continue it. Our study provides a new level of biological understanding of the impact of education on the developing brain and the mutual effect between biology and education.

“It is not yet known how this disparity, or its long-term implications, can be prevented. Not every adolescent enjoys maths so we need to investigate possible alternatives, such as training in logic and reasoning that engage the same brain area as maths.”

Professor Cohen Kadosh added, “While we started this line of research before COVID-19, I also wonder how the reduced access to education in general, and maths in particular (or lack of it due to the pandemic) impacts the brain and cognitive development of children and adolescents. While we are still unaware of the long-term influence of this interruption, our study provides an important understanding of how a lack of a single component in education, maths, can impact brain and behaviour.”

The study has been undertaken by University of Oxford researchers George Zacharopolous, Roi Cohen Kadosh, and Francesco Sella (now at the Centre for Mathematical Cognition, Loughborough University).

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About the study
The study was supported by the European Research Council.

Students were asked whether they stopped studying maths if their age was above 16 or plan to stop studying maths as part of their educational programme if younger than 16, and underwent a brain scan and cognitive assessment. They were followed up after approximately 19 months to examine changes that might have occurred as a function of studying maths.

This study is part of a larger project that investigates the impact of mathematical education from childhood to adulthood on brain and cognitive development. The research aims to provide a novel understanding of how our brain is changing due to mathematical education and how mathematical education impacts our brain and other cognitive abilities. Cohen Kadosh and his colleagues hope that this knowledge will allow them to identify potential ways for effective brain-based interventions.

About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the fifth year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation. Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.
The University of Oxford’s Experimental Psychology Department’s mission is to conduct world-leading experimental research to understand the psychological and neural mechanisms relevant to human behaviour. Wherever appropriate, we translate our findings into evidence-based public benefits in mental health and well-being, education, industry, and policy. Key areas of research include Behavioural Neuroscience, Developmental Psychology, Social Psychology, and Psychological and Brain Health.