White Matter Matters for Some Areas of Math

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brain white matterThe quality of white matter in the brain may have an impact on an individual’s ability to excel at addition and multiplying, according to a new study. The white matter in the brain performs as a protectant sheath around neural pathways made up of gray cells, or gray matter. The neural pathways are like bundles of cables, and they serve as tracts for signals to be transferred. The more pathways there are, the greater the amount of white matter there is to protect them. A larger amount of white matter also means that the signals going through the pathways go at a proportionately faster rate.

The study, led by Professor Bert De Smedt (Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, KU Leuven), was performed on healthy 12 year olds who have higher quality white matter tracts and who also have high scores in addition and multiplication. However, the quality of white matter does not extend to the ability to use subtraction and division. The children were asked to solve a series of arithmetic operations while a brain scan recorded their neural activity. Afterwards, a comparison was made of the quality of each child’s white matter tract with their arithmetic test performance.

According to the results reported in Science Daily News, the data showed that the higher the quality of the white matter tract known as the arcuate fasciculus anterior, the tract that connects brain regions that are known to be used in arithmetic, the higher their performance in adding and multiplying. At the same time, the results showed no correlation for subtraction and multiplication.

The study gives insight into the link between reading and arithmetic, according to Professor De Smedt. While proficiency in both reading and arithmetic often go hand-in-hand, there was no explanation as to the connection. Researchers believe this study shows that the process for learning the sounds associated with letters is the same for learning the processes used in the mathematical applications.

The study results may prove to be valuable in helping children who have impairments such as dyscalculia or head trauma, in the future. White matter tracts might be strengthened through the use of extra arithmetic training.

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