Could Brain MRIs Determine the Most Effective Way to Teach Children?

A new MRI study published in online journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is the first to examine how brain structure and function may pre-determine how a person will learn mathematics.

The study, published on April 29 and led by Stanford psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor Vinod Menon, quickly became controversial due to its findings: “Children with a larger right hippocampus and greater connectivity between the hippocampus and [the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia] improved their arithmetic problem-solving skills more,” says Menon.

Jonathan Moreno, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, criticized the study, saying, “If it gets into the popular consciousness that it’s wise to have your kid’s brain checked out, that raises huge issues.”

The intent of the study was to learn why some children benefit more than others from intensive one-on-one math tutelage.  24 Grade 3 children were tested on their IQ levels, their working memory and their reading and mathematical ability, in addition to structural and functional MRI scans. After the testing and imaging, each child received 22 hours of math tutoring, spread over a period of 8-9 weeks. Some level of improvement was measured for each, although the levels  were dramatic: from 8% to 198%.

None of the testing methods correctly predicted how well a child would respond to tutoring. However, the team of researchers were easily able to make connections between the MRI brain images and the subsequent tutoring results.

Menon and his team of researchers have stressed that their findings should not lead to quick conclusions or a black-and-white mentality in which children seemingly not ‘wired’ for mathematical excellence are given up on. The same team is currently studying how they may be able to help children struggling in math to benefit more from tutoring.