07 Jun Studying maths beyond GCSEs helps brain development, say scientists
Students who drop mathematics at the age of 16 have lower amounts of a brain chemical that is critical for brain and cognitive development, compared with those who continue maths, a study has found.
Researchers at the University of Oxford found that those who stopped maths after their GCSEs had less gamma-aminobutyric acid, a chemical which is crucial for brain plasticity, than counterparts who pursued maths post-16.
The reduction in the chemical, which works as a neurotransmitter, was found in a key area of the brain that supports maths, memory, learning, reasoning and problem solving – and researchers warned it could put affected students at a disadvantage.
More than 130 students aged 14-18 took part in the study by researchers from the university’s department of experimental psychology. Students over 16 were asked if they had already stopped studying maths, while younger students were asked whether they were planning to give up maths.
Each of them underwent a brain scan and cognitive assessment, and were followed up 19 months later. According to the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers were able to spot those who did or did not study maths post-16 based on concentrations of the brain chemical in each student.
They also found the amount of brain chemical present predicted changes in mathematical attainment about 19 months later, yet there were no differences in the levels of the chemical present before the adolescents stopped studying maths.
The findings are significant because pupils in the UK are allowed to drop maths at 16, unlike those in much of the rest of the world. They are likely to be seized upon by those in favour of extending compulsory maths to the age of 18. They also raise questions about the possible impact on children’s cognitive development of disrupted learning due to Covid.
Prof Roi Cohen Kadosh, the cognitive neuroscientist at Oxford who led the study, said: “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.”
Acknowledging that not every adolescent enjoys maths, he said alternatives which produce the same effect should be investigated, including training in logic and reasoning that engage the same brain area as maths.