A new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine says that the size and circuitry of certain parts of children's brains are excellent predictors of how well they'll respond to intensive math tutoring.
The researchers' most surprising finding was that children's IQ and math scores had no effect on tutoring outcomes, yet brain scan images "predicted how much a child would learn," said Vinod Menon, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who was the study's senior author.
The study was published online Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Menon's research team took MRI scans of 24 third-graders just before they underwent eight weeks of rigorous math tutoring.
A control group of children also had their brains scanned, but they didn't get any tutoring.
The kids who were tutored showed across-the-board gains in their arithmetic skills, with the levels of their improvement varying wildly - from 8 percent improvement up to 198 percent. The children in the control group showed no signs of improvement.
The researchers found that the kids who responded the best to tutoring tended to have a larger and more active hippocampus. Named after the Greek word for "seahorse," the spirally hippocampus is known to play an important role in learning and memory. But its role in mastering specific skills - like math - hadn't been explored until now.
Even more than its size, the hippocampus's ability to get along with other parts of the brain was the biggest predictor of math success.
The type of MRI used by Menon's team is called an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which measures changes in the flow of oxygenated blood from one part of the brain to another.
Like watching electricity flow between two points, the machine reveals how much one section of the brain is wired to other parts, "much like you might measure the synchronization of two different clocks," Menon said. "The more tightly linked they are, the more learning benefits we see in these children."
Menon believes the tighter the connections between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex - a part of the brain that influences decision-making and behavior - the more rapid the retrieval of stored knowledge.
The fact that a brain scan - rather than IQ or math scores - could predict how students would respond to tutoring also surprised Michael Posner, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oregon who was not involved in the study.
But Posner is convinced that the "variety of very modern imaging methods" used by Menon were accurate. "That's one of the main reasons this study is important," he said.
Posner was also surprised by the involvement of the hippocampus, rather than other regions of the brain, in learning math. "The hippocampus isn't a system that one would've thought specific to mathematics," Posner said.
"For me, the intriguing speculation is that the reason these areas are better in these children is not because they were born better, but because they had acquired important learning skills at an earlier age - and not necessarily mathematical skills," Posner said. "It might say that our early education should be designed to make the child a successful learner, no matter what he or she learns."
Menon said he hopes that someday brain MRIs - which would cost parents upward of $500 - will help guide educators about the best approaches for teaching math.
But Kobad Bugwadia, owner and director of the Mathnasium tutoring center in Campbell, Calif., isn't so sure.
He said he thinks the results of the study are useful for understanding how the structure of the brain influences learning, but stops short of envisioning the scans as a way to predict math performance.
"Maybe how quickly children learn could be different," said Bugwadia, who left his job as a successful Silicon Valley electrical engineer to help children shed their fears about math. "But at some point, I strongly believe that they all have abilities to do well if given the right tools and opportunities."