Remediation of Childhood Math Anxiety and Associated Neural Circuits through Cognitive Tutoring

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Society for Neuroscience


Math anxiety is a negative emotional reaction that is characterized by feelings of stress and anxiety in situations involving mathematical problem solving. High math-anxious individuals tend to avoid situations involving mathematics and are less likely to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math-related careers than those with low math anxiety. Math anxiety during childhood, in particular, has adverse long-term consequences for academic and professional success. Identifying cognitive interventions and brain mechanisms by which math anxiety can be ameliorated in children is therefore critical. Here we investigate whether an intensive 8 week one-to-one cognitive tutoring program designed to improve mathematical skills reduces childhood math anxiety, and we identify the neurobiological mechanisms by which math anxiety can be reduced in affected children. Forty-six children in grade 3, a critical early-onset period for math anxiety, participated in the cognitive tutoring program. High math-anxious children showed a significant reduction in math anxiety after tutoring. Remarkably, tutoring remediated aberrant functional responses and connectivity in emotion-related circuits anchored in the basolateral amygdala. Crucially, children with greater tutoring-induced decreases in amygdala reactivity had larger reductions in math anxiety. Our study demonstrates that sustained exposure to mathematical stimuli can reduce math anxiety and highlights the key role of the amygdala in this process. Our findings are consistent with models of exposure-based therapy for anxiety disorders and have the potential to inform the early treatment of a disability that, if left untreated in childhood, can lead to significant lifelong educational and socioeconomic consequences in affected individuals.


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