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. 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.