Study: MRI reveals brain function differs in math-phobic children

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Children who get anxious about doing math have brain function that differs from children who don’t, with math-specific fear interfering with the parts of the brain involved in problem-solving, according to functional MRI (fMRI) scans of 7- to 9-year-olds that formed the basis of a study published online March 20 in Psychological Science.

Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, Calif., performed fMRI scans on 46 second and third grade students while they did addition and subtraction problems to look for biological evidence of the existence of math anxiety. Outside the fMRI scanner, the research team, led by Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, gave the children a questionnaire to assess math anxiety.

Menon’s team decided to study young children to gain perspective on the developmental origins of math anxiety. The questionnaires used were modified for 7- to 9-year-olds.

In children with high math anxiety, the scans showed heightened activity in the amygdala, and also in sections of the hippocampus associated with the formation of new memories. Children with math anxiety also had decreased activity in several brain regions associated with working memory and numerical reasoning. Analysis of brain connections showed that, in children with high math anxiety, the increased activity in the amygdala was driving the reduced function in the numerical information processing regions.

“Thus, in children in the [low-math-anxiety] group, the amygdala was coupled with brain areas that facilitate efficient task processing, whereas in children in the [high-math-anxiety] group, the amygdala showed greater coupling with cortical regions involved in processing and regulating negative emotions,” wrote the authors.

The two groups also performed differently on the math problems. Children with high math anxiety were less accurate and significantly slower at solving math problems than children with low math anxiety.

Menon said the observations show that math anxiety is neurobiologically similar to other kinds of anxiety or phobias. “You cannot just wish it away as something that's unreal. Our findings validate math anxiety as a genuine type of stimulus- and situation-specific anxiety."

He noted that it is possible for someone to be good at math, but still suffer from math anxiety. However, over time, people with math anxiety tend to avoid advanced classes and are left with deficient math skills. Identifying the neurologic basis for math anxiety may help to develop new strategies or treatments for addressing the problem, similar to how other anxieties or phobias are treated.

“It is remarkable that cognitive information-processing deficits arising from math anxiety can be traced to brain regions and circuits that have been consistently implicated in specific phobias and generalized anxiety disorders in adults,” wrote the authors. “In this context, it is also noteworthy that children as young as 7 to 9 years of age can consciously report on their own anxiety in situations involving mathematical problem solving and that the effects of this subjective measure can be traced to individual differences in amygdala response and connectivity.”

The researchers are now recruiting children aged 7 to 12 for further brain studies involving math anxiety, math cognition and memory function.