SASN Researchers Examine Brain Activity of Low-Performing Adolescent Math Students

brain, prof and researcher

Two SASN Psychology researchers are examining how activity in certain brain regions correlates with math performance in adolescents, a population that historically has been understudied. The research, which is in its early stages, could help scientists and educators design learning strategies to help underperforming students. 

Assistant Professor Miriam Rosenberg-Lee and Ph.D student Roberto Abreu-Mendoza, both of RU-N's Psychology department, recently published a study in the journal Developmental Science looking at connectivity patterns of the intraparietal sulcus (IPS) with other regions of the brain in teens.  

Previous research has shown that this area, which is central to mathematical learning, behaves differently in low-performing children and adults: Kids who struggle with math have greater IPS connectivity to other math-related areas, while underperforming adults show weaker IPS connectivity. 

Aware of the scant research done on teens, Rosenberg-Lee and Abreu-Mendoza, along with colleagues from Mexico and the Netherlands, decided to examine similar functional- connectivity patterns in adolescents to fill in gaps and get a better understanding of this developmental phase. 

“Teens have been understudied for lots of reasons, many of them logistical,” said Abreu-Mendoza. “They’re typically busy and are harder to schedule for sessions, researchers still need parental permission for their participation, and many have braces and can’t do fMRI scans.” 

In addition, researchers have focused their lens mostly on the social/emotional development and risk-taking behaviors of teens, while shining a light on the academic skills of children while they’re still developing, says Rosenberg-Lee. 

The hyper-connectivity we see in children and now teens, which correlates with low math performance, may mean that they’re using their whole brain indiscriminately, rather than refining the brain areas they need to do math well.

They studied 31 adolescents across the performance-level spectrum, from high to low achievers, and found that low-performing teenagers exhibit a stronger IPS connectivity, similar to that of children. But they also found that this IPS hyper-connectivity mostly routed not to frontal-lobe regions, as with kids, but to posterior parts of the brain, as it does with adults, suggesting that for poor-performing adolescents, this is a transitional developmental stage. 

Meanwhile, low-performing teens also exhibited hyper-connectivity between the hippocampus and the frontal-lobe regions, as is the case with children.  

According to the RU-N researchers, these results suggest that over-connectivity may be a persistent hallmark of math difficulties, and that brain-imaging might help identify struggling students earlier than behavioral testing. 

“We know from past research that certain brain areas are important for specific academic tasks, so we can look at the functional-connectivity of those regions, meaning areas that are far apart but functionally connected,” said Rosenberg-Lee. “We also know that once you get good at math, you use your frontal lobes less—the back of the brain can do things in a kind of automatic way. The hyper-connectivity we see in children and now teens, which correlates with low math performance, may mean that they’re using their whole brain indiscriminately, rather than refining the brain areas they need to do math well.” 

In other words, the hyperconnectivity of the IPS with other brain regions in kids and teens may signal too much activity with the crucial elements of the brain, creating “noise” at the expense of streamlined communication. 

As Rosenberg-Lee and Abreu-Mendoza deepen their understanding of brain-system-level issues of low-performing math students, they envision pushing their research in new directions. 

“In future studies we might ask, If we intervene with learning techniques, would this hyper-connectivity subside?” says Rosenberg-Lee. “What would happen to this activity pattern? We have some data from kids in task-based studies that suggests that this is the case, but further study is needed.”