Stanford Study: Brain Scans May Predict Students’ Math Capabilities


Researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine have reported that brain scans may predict which students are likely to improve their math skills in school and which ones won’t, with scans predicting more precisely than IQ or math tests.

NBC News’ Maggie Fox writes that the scientists worked with a group of students who began getting brain scans at the age of 8, and who followed up with scans into their mid-teens.

Even researchers were surprised when they found that certain patterns of brain activity when kids were not doing anything at all could predict how much they would improve in math skills. The accuracy of these predictions was higher than results from IQ tests, reading tests, or math tests, according to the report published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The researchers were not suggesting that all children should have brain scans, but the information could result in new ways to identify the children who need intensive math coaching, said the authors.

“I can’t take one child, put the child in a brain scanner and say with certainty this is how the child is going to end up,” said Tanya Evans, a psychiatric researcher who worked on the study.

But the study does show which regions of the brain seem most important in developing math skills. Evans adds that the work is similar to studies done on dyslexic children. Dyslexia affects the ability to read printed words.

“A long-term goal of this research is to identify children who might benefit most from targeted math intervention at an early age,” said Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who led the research.

The study included 43 students with normal intelligence who were asked to take tests and to sit still for functional magnetic resonance imaging scans and ordinary MRI scans. MRIs map the physical structure of the brain while fMRIs show the function of the brain. Researchers were able to see the parts of the brain that were more active in the children who improved their math skills over the next few years.

“Some of the kids started out really bad and ended up really good,” Evans said. “Some stayed average. Some started out good and got worse.”

This does not necessarily mean that math skills are hard-wired into the brain, says Evans. The idea is to work on ways to improve math skills to see if the brain structures also change.

“Practice makes perfect in everything,” she said. “We are looking at what types of math interventions are most effective.”

The children were studied for six years. The research showed that brain characteristics indicated which kids would be the best in math over the course of the research.

The findings will move scientists closer to their goal of assisting students who struggle with their math skills, writes Stanford University in the publication Bioscience Technology. Vinod Menon, who led the research team, says the work identifies a network of brain areas that provides a scaffold for long-term math skill development in children.

He reports that the next step is to investigate how brain connections change over time in kids who show large versus small improvements in math skills and then to design new interventions to help students improve their short-term learning and long-term skill development. Evans suggests that parents and teachers encourage children to exercise their mental math muscles.

Headlines & Global News’ Aditi Simiai Tiwari reports that the researchers hope to establish a baseline for understanding development that will, in turn, help experts develop and validate programs for the remediation of children with learning disabilities.

08 25, 2015
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