Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brain Markers of Math Anxiety

Right and Left Amygdala Highlighted in Blue
In the last several posts, I have examined some recent research related to the learning disorder known as dyscalculia or mathematics disorder.  

A common component of mathematics disorder is math anxiety.  As children with math disorders struggle with school-based mathematics activities, anxiety common develops around these types of learning experiences.  This anxiety can contribute to impaired learning and additionally make the experience emotionally uncomfortable.

Young and colleagues from Stanford University recently examined the neurodevelopmental basis of math anxiety in a series of children between 7 and 9 years of age.  They designed a brain imaging experiment that had the following key elements of design:
  • Subjects: 46 second and third graders from the San Francisco, CA area recruited via flyers and advertisement
  • Neuropsychological assessment: WASI IQ assessment, Working Memory Test Battery for Children, Child Behavior Checklist by parents for trait anxiety and the Scale for Early Mathematics Anxiety (SEMA)
  • Functional brain imaging: Two runs in fMRI scanner while completing math and control tasks
  • Statistical analysis: Groups with high math anxiety scores were compared to those with low math anxiety scores.  Additionally, math anxiety scores were used as a continuous variable to look at brain regions

The important findings from this brain imaging research study included:
  • Math anxiety appeared to unrelated to IQ, working memory, reading or mathematics achievement
  • The high math anxiety group did not differ from the low math anxiety disorder group in trait anxiety
  • High math anxiety was associated with hyperactivity in the right amygdala, a region known to be important in other anxiety and emotional disorders
  • Math anxiety was also associated with reduced activity in the posterior parietal and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex regions during math tasks

An additional analysis in this study looked at the connectivity patterns related to the right amygdala in the high math anxiety compared to the low math anxiety group.  The high math anxiety group showed enhanced connectivity with "between the right amygdala and multiple brain regions associated with social and general anxiety, specifically the left amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, as well as the anterior thalamic nucleus". 

The authors note their findings support math anxiety as a mechanism contributing to poor math performance by reducing the effectiveness of "working memory, attention, and cognitive-control processes engaged during math problem solving".

This study provides support for a brain mechanism for anxiety disorder and underscores the importance of assessment and treatment of math anxiety in children.  Reduction in math anxiety may be a key component in improving math skills and in the success of remedial math interventions.

Photo of amygdala is from a screen shot of the iPad app 3D Brain from the authors' files.

Young CB, Wu SS, & Menon V (2012). The neurodevelopmental basis of math anxiety. Psychological science, 23 (5), 492-501 PMID: 22434239


  1. Great piece! A few days ago I posted "When Learning Hurst - Toxic Learning" (http://goo.gl/bj3Hy) it refers to a study of how math anxiety predicts pain activation and progresses to suggest that math-anxiety is but one of a number of 'learning-performance anxieties' that undermine learning.

  2. Hello Yates,

    Your post is very nice and so much informative,thanks for sharing information about Math Anxiety and keep me update in future like this.

    Thanks for sharing.

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