Brain measurements predict math progress with tutoring

Structure associated with memory formation predicts learning ability

A child who is good at learning math may literally have a head for numbers.

Kids’ brain structures and wiring are associated with how much their math skills improve after tutoring, researchers report April 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Certain measures of brain anatomy were even better at judging learning potential than traditional measures of ability such as IQ and standardized test results, says study author Kaustubh Supekar of Stanford University. These signatures include the size of the hippocampus — a string bean–shaped structure involved in making memories — and how connected the area was with other parts of the brain.

The findings suggest that kids struggling with their math homework aren’t necessarily slacking off, says cognitive scientist David Geary of the University of Missouri in Columbia. “They just may not have as much brain region devoted to memory formation as other kids.”

The study could give scientists clues about where to look for sources of learning disabilities, he says.

Scientists have spent years studying brain regions related to math performance in adults, but how kids learn is still “a huge question,” says Supekar. He and colleagues tested IQ and math and reading performance in 24 8- and 9-year-olds, then scanned their brains in an MRI machine. The scans measured the sizes of different brain structures and the connections among them.

“It’s like creating a circuit diagram,” says study leader Vinod Menon, also of Stanford.

Next, the kids began an intensive one-on-one tutoring program that focused on speedy problem-solving and math skills such as counting strategies and basic arithmetic. After eight weeks and about 15 to 20 hours of tutoring, Menon, Supekar and colleagues tested the students’ math abilities again and compared the kids’ progress with their brain scans.

Overall, tutoring improved the kids’ math skills, and the children with the biggest improvements had big hippocampuses that were well connected to brain regions that make memories and retrieve facts.  

“It’s a very interesting and surprising finding,” says cognitive neuroscientist Robert Siegler of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In adults, the hippocampus isn’t all that involved in math, he says. But in kids, “it apparently is involved in math learning.”

Supekar thinks the findings could help educators tailor math tutoring strategies to different kids. “Right now, math education is like a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. One day, maybe 10 years from now, Supekar says, scientists might be able to scan children’s brains and place them into programs that cater to their specific mental signatures.

But for now, Menon says, “It certainly behooves us to not give up on children who are slow to learn, and to think of alternate approaches to boost learning.”

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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