Imaging study reveals differences in brain function for children with math anxiety
Scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown for the first time how brain function differs in people who have math anxiety from those who don't.
A series of scans conducted while second- and third-grade students did addition and subtraction revealed that those who feel panicky about doing math had increased activity in brain regions associated with fear, which caused decreased activity in parts of the brain involved in problem-solving.
"The same part of the brain that responds to fearful situations, such as seeing a spider or snake, also shows a heightened response in children with high math anxiety," said Vinod Menon, PhD, the Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who led the research.
In their new study, which published online March 20 in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Menon's team performed functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans on 46 second- and third-grade students with low and high math anxiety. Outside the fMRI scanner, the children were assessed for math anxiety with a modified version of a standardized questionnaire for adults, and also received standard intelligence and cognitive tests.
Math anxiety is an under-studied phenomenon, Menon said, which still lacks formally established diagnostic criteria. Tests for math anxiety ask people about their emotional responses to situations and problems involving math. Those with high levels of math anxiety respond to numerical problems with fear and worry, and also say they are anxious about situations such as being asked to solve a math problem in front of a class. Menon 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, leaving them with deficient math skills and limiting their career options.
While prior research focused on the behavioral aspects of math anxiety, Menon and his team wanted to find biological evidence of its existence.
"It's remarkable that, although the phenomena was first identified over 50 years back, nobody had bothered to ask how math anxiety manifests itself in terms of neural activity," Menon said. His team's observations show that math anxiety is neurobiologically similar to other kinds of anxiety or phobias, he said. "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."
Identifying the neurologic basis for math anxiety may help to develop new strategies for addressing the problem, such as treatments used for generalized anxiety or phobias.
"The results are a significant step toward our understanding of brain function during math anxiety and will influence development of new academic interventions," said Victor Carrion, MD, a pediatric psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and an expert on the effects of anxiety in children. Carrion, who was not involved in Menon's research, is also an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford.
Menon's team decided to study young children with math anxiety to gain perspective on the developmental origins of the problem. (Prior behavioral studies had been limited to older children and adults.) First, the researchers modified a questionnaire that measures math anxiety to make it suitable for 7- to 9-year-olds. The study subjects were ranked by their scores and divided into high and low math anxiety groups for comparison. Children in the high and low math anxiety groups had similar IQ scores, working memory, reading and math abilities, and generalized anxiety levels.
The kids performed addition and subtraction problems while their brains were scanned using fMRI. In the children with high math anxiety, the scans showed heightened activity in the amygdala, the brain's main fear center, and also in a section of the hippocampus, a brain structure that helps form new memories. They also had decreased activity in several brain regions associated with working memory and numerical reasoning. Interestingly, analysis of brain connections showed that, in children with high math anxiety, the increased activity in the fear center was driving the reduced function in numerical information-processing regions of the brain. Further, children with high math anxiety also showed greater connections between the amygdala and emotion-regulating regions of the brain.
The two groups also showed differences in performance: Children with high math anxiety were less accurate and significantly slower at solving math problems than children with low math anxiety.
The results suggest that, in math anxiety, math-specific fear interferes with the brain's information-processing capacity and its ability to reason through a math problem.
In addition to examining possible treatments and following the trajectory of math anxiety from early childhood throughout schooling, future research could provide insight into how the brain's information-processing capacity is affected by performance anxiety in general, Menon said.
Menon's collaborators at Stanford were research assistants Christina Young and Sarah Wu.
The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. More information about the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, which also supported this research, is available at psychiatry.stanford.edu/.
Future studies of math and brain function:
Menon's lab is now looking for children ages 7 to 12 in the San Francisco Bay Area for several brain studies, including studies of math anxiety, math cognition and memory formation. The researchers are especially seeking second- and third-graders who have difficulty with math for a study in which a month of free math tutoring will be provided.
They are also seeking children with high-functioning autism as well as typically developing children to serve as control subjects for ongoing studies of math, language and social abilities.
Studies involve cognitive assessments and MRI scans. Eligible children will receive pictures of their brain and $50-200 for participation. An MRI scan is a safe, non-invasive procedure that does not use radiation or any injections.
Provided by Stanford University Medical Center
- How early math lessons change children's brains Jun 07, 2011 | not rated yet | 0
- Brain study reveals how successful students overcome math anxiety Oct 20, 2011 | not rated yet | 0
- When 2 + 2 = major anxiety: Math performance in stressful situations Dec 09, 2008 | not rated yet | 0
- Elementary school women teachers transfer their fear of doing math to girls Jan 25, 2010 | not rated yet | 0
- Researchers probe causes of math anxiety May 19, 2011 | not rated yet | 0
- Motion perception revisited: High Phi effect challenges established motion perception assumptions Apr 23, 2013 | 3 / 5 (2) | 2
- Anything you can do I can do better: Neuromolecular foundations of the superiority illusion (Update) Apr 02, 2013 | 4.5 / 5 (11) | 5
- The visual system as economist: Neural resource allocation in visual adaptation Mar 30, 2013 | 5 / 5 (2) | 9
- Separate lives: Neuronal and organismal lifespans decoupled Mar 27, 2013 | 4.9 / 5 (8) | 0
- Sizing things up: The evolutionary neurobiology of scale invariance Feb 28, 2013 | 4.8 / 5 (10) | 14
Why is zone 1 in liver more prone to ischemic injury?
May 23, 2013 Hi, Is it because around central vein, there is only deoxygenated blood from the vein where as in the periphery there is hepatic artery. Also why...
How can there be villous adenoma in colon, if there are no villi there
May 22, 2013 As title suggest. Thanks :smile:
How can there be a term called "intestinal metaplasia" of stomach
May 21, 2013 Hello everyone, Ok Stomach's normal epithelium is simple columnar, now in intestinal type of adenocarcinoma of stomach it undergoes "intestinal...
Pressure-volume curve: Elastic Recoil Pressure don't make sense
May 18, 2013 From pressure-volume curve of the lung and chest wall (attached photo), I don't understand why would the elastic recoil pressure of the lung is...
If you became brain-dead, would you want them to pull the plug?
May 17, 2013 I'd want the rest of me to stay alive. Sure it's a lousy way to live but it beats being all-the-way dead. Maybe if I make it 20 years they'll...
MRI bill question
May 15, 2013 Dear PFers, The hospital gave us a $12k bill for one MRI (head with contrast). The people I talked to at the hospital tell me that they do not...
- More from Physics Forums - Medical Sciences
More news stories
(HealthDay)—We've all seen them: the surfers who race to the beach when a hurricane hits, the guy who decides to ride out the storm in his overmatched boat, the tornado chasers who fearlessly steer their ...
Psychology & Psychiatry May 24, 2013 | not rated yet | 0
Women at a particular stage in their monthly menstrual cycle may be more vulnerable to some of the psychological side-effects associated with stressful experiences, according to a study from UCL.
Psychology & Psychiatry May 24, 2013 | 4 / 5 (4) | 4 |
Ernie Pyle – an iconic war correspondent in World War II – reportedly said "There are no atheists in foxholes." A new joint study between two brothers at Cornell and Virginia Wesleyan found that only ...
Psychology & Psychiatry May 24, 2013 | 2.5 / 5 (4) | 2
(Medical Xpress)—Research by Stanford scholar Emma Seppala at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education found that post-traumatic stress disorder decreased in veterans who participated ...
Psychology & Psychiatry May 24, 2013 | 5 / 5 (1) | 1
(Medical Xpress)—Patients with diabetes who are depressed are much more likely to develop episodes of dangerously low blood sugars, or hypoglycemia, than are those who are not depressed, a new study has ...
Psychology & Psychiatry May 24, 2013 | not rated yet | 0 |
Coenzyme Q10 decreases all cause mortality by half, according to the results of a multicentre randomised double blind trial presented today at Heart Failure 2013 congress. It is the first drug to improve heart failure mortality ...
12 hours ago | 5 / 5 (2) | 5
(HealthDay)—Animals make great companions for senior citizens, but elderly people who always drive with a pet in the car are far more likely to crash than those who never drive with a pet, researchers have ...
4 hours ago | not rated yet | 0
Heart failure accelerates the aging process and brings on early andropausal syndrome (AS), according to research presented today at the Heart Failure Congress 2013. AS, also referred to as male 'menopause', was four times ...
12 hours ago | not rated yet | 1
Mortality and length of stay are highest in heart failure patients admitted in January, on Friday, and overnight, according to research presented today at the Heart Failure Congress 2013. The analysis of nearly 1 million ...
12 hours ago | not rated yet | 0
(AP)—Department of Justice lawyers have again asked a federal appeals court in New York to delay lifting age restrictions and prescription requirements on an emergency contraceptive popularly known as the morning-after ...
12 hours ago | not rated yet | 0