Brain function differs in kids with math anxiety

Washington, Mar 22: Researchers led by one of Indian origin have shed light on how brain function varies in children who have math anxiety from those who don’t. 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 behavioural sciences who led the research.

In their new study, 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 behavioural 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 paediatric psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and an expert on the effects of anxiety in children. C

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.

The study has been published online in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. (ANI)