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Students who struggle with math may have a neurocognitive disorder called dyscalculia, a new paper finds

University of Minnesota researcher co-authors paper on the neural bases of and instructional interventions for the disorder that affects roughly as many people as dyslexia

May 26, 2011

Media note: Embargoed until 1 p.m., Thursday, May 26
For a copy of the paper, contact Patty Mattern, at mattern@umn.edu

Students who struggle to learn mathematics may have a neurocognitive disorder that inhibits the acquisition of basic numerical and arithmetic concepts, according to a new paper by University of Minnesota and British researchers. Called developmental dyscalculia, the disorder affects roughly the same number of people as dyslexia but has received much less attention (and research funding). The paper by University of Minnesota Educational Psychology assistant professor Sashank Varma and his British colleagues that shines a light on the causes of and interventions for dyscalculia will be published Thursday, May 27 in the journal Science.

The paper, "Dyscalculia, From Brain to Education," documents how scientists across the world have used magnetic resonance imaging to map the neural network that supports arithmetic. Through this process, they have discovered abnormalities in this network among learners with dyscalculia.

These findings have the potential to lead to evidence-based interventions for dyscalculia, Varma says. "Knowledge about what parts of the brain we use while learning mathematics is spurring the design of new computer learning environments that can strengthen simple number and arithmetic concepts," he explains. The paper envisions future research where neuroscientists, psychologists and educational researchers collaborate to offer a productive way forward on the important question of why some children struggle with learning mathematics.

Varma co-authored the paper with lead author Professor Brian Butterworth, of the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and Diana Laurillard, a member of the Institute of Education at the University of London. "Dyscalculia: From Brain to Education" is published online today in Science.

Varma studies how people understand complex symbol systems such as mathematics and language, and the neural underpinnings of this understanding. In 2008, he published an influential paper on the relation between neuroscience and education in the journal Educational Researcher with Daniel Schwartz at Stanford University and Bruce McCandliss at Vanderbilt University.

About the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development
The Department of Educational Psychology is one of eight academic departments in the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). The college ranks third nationally in research among all public colleges of education, with 260 professionals directly involved in research. CEHD enrolls about 2,350 undergraduate students and 2,900 graduate students.

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