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Topic: [ncsm-members] Your child's brain on math: Don't bother?
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Your child's brain on math: Don't bother?
Posted: May 1, 2013 1:13 PM
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From Reuters / Yahoo News, Monday, April 29, 2013. See .
Our thanks to Robert Steele for drawing out attention to this piece.
Your child's brain on math: Don't bother?

By Sharon Begley

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Parents whose children are struggling with math
often view intense tutoring as the best way to help them master
crucial skills, but a new study released on Monday suggests that for
some kids even that is a lost cause.

According to the research, the size of one key brain structure and
the connections between it and other regions can help identify the 8-
and 9-year olds who will hardly benefit from one-on-one math

"We could predict how much a child learned from the tutoring based on
measures of brain structure and connectivity," said Vinod Menon, a
professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford
University School of Medicine, who led the research.

The study, published in the online edition of Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, is the first to use brain imaging to
look for a connection between brain attributes and the ability to
learn arithmetic. But despite its publication in a well-respected
journal, the research immediately drew criticism.

Jonathan Moreno, professor of medical ethics at the University of
Pennsylvania, fears that some parents and teachers might "give up
now" on a math-challenged child. "If it gets into the popular
consciousness that it's wise to have your kid's brain checked out"
before making decisions about academic options, he said, "that raises
huge issues."

Menon and his fellow scientists agree that their research shouldn't
lead to hasty conclusions. They are exploring whether any
interventions might change the brain in such a way that children who
struggle with math can benefit more from tutoring.

Just as learning to juggle increases the amount of gray matter in the
area of adult brains that is responsible for spatial attention, said
Menon, maybe something could pump up regions relevant to learning
arithmetic before a child begins math tutoring.

Until then, he said "it's conceivable" that parents will interpret
the new study as saying some kids cannot benefit from math tutoring,
"and give up before even trying. How this plays out is far from


The study was conceived as a way to understand why some children
benefit more than others from math instruction, said study co-author
Lynn Fuchs, professor of special education at Vanderbilt University
and an expert on ways to improve reading and math skills in students
with learning disabilities.

For the research, the scientists first ran several tests on 24
third-graders to measure their IQ, working memory and reading and
math ability. The children also underwent brain imaging. Structural
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) revealed the size and shape of
various regions, while functional MRIs revealed connections among

Then the children received 22 one-on-one tutoring sessions, spread
over eight weeks, for eight to nine hours per week. The tutoring
emphasized number knowledge (principles like 5 + 4 = 4 + 5, and that
many pairs of numbers add up to, say, 9) and fast-paced mental math
("quick, what is 6 + 9?").

After the tutoring, the children all improved in their arithmetic
ability, solving more problems correctly and more quickly. But the
amount of improvement varied enormously, from 8 percent to 198

None of the measures - pre-tutoring IQ score, working memory and math
skills - predicted how much a child would improve.

But when the scientists compared each child's improvement with his or
her pre-tutoring brain images, two connections jumped out. The volume
of gray matter (neurons) in the right hippocampus, one of the twin
structures crucial for forming memories, varied by about 10 percent
in the children, Stanford's Menon said. The strength of the wiring
between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex and the basal
ganglia varied by about 15 percent. Both predicted how much a child's
math skills improved with tutoring, the scientists reported.

The prefrontal cortex, behind the forehead, "is important for
cognitive control, which plays a role in the formation of long-term
memories," Menon said. The basal ganglia, tucked under the brain's
outer surface, "is involved in habit formation and procedural
memory," such as how to add numbers.

"Children with a larger right hippocampus and greater connectivity
between the hippocampus and these two structures improved their
arithmetic problem-solving skills more," said Menon.

These brain features explained 25 percent to 55 percent of the
variation in improvement after math tutoring, he said. That, of
course, leaves almost half of the difference among children to be
explained by other factors.

Among the concerns raised about the study is its size. It enrolled
only two dozen children, on a par with many neuroimaging studies but
quite small for research that might influence people's behavior, said
psychologist Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University.

"This is very, very preliminary evidence that brain measurements
might tell you something that psychological measurements don't," said
Lilienfeld, co-author with psychiatrist Sally Satel of an upcoming
book, "Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience,"
that critiques some uses of neuroimaging. "It's important to see if
the findings hold up in a second sample, and if other labs
corroborate this."

Because brain images seem more rigorous than psychological measures,
he said, there is a risk that parents and educators will interpret
the study as definitive evidence that some children are doomed to be

"Caution has to be the watchword here," he said.
(Reporting by Sharon Begley; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Douglas Royalty)
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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