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Is Math Anxiety on the Way Out?

Is Math Anxiety on the Way Out?

By Harry Waldman

Scientists may have located the brain function that is most important to mathematical ability. Researchers at University College London claim to have discovered the area of the brain linked to dyscalculia, a mathematical learning disability. The findings may prove that there is a distinct part of the brain used for counting. Establishing that is a crucial step towards better diagnosis and an understanding of why many people struggle with mathematics.

The results, which appear in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explain that an area of the brain widely thought to be involved in processing number information generally has in fact two quite distinct functions. One function is responsible for counting how many things are present while the other is responsible for knowing how much.

It is the discovery of the part responsible for counting or numerosity that is a major finding for Professor Brian Butterworth, who has also published The Mathematical Brain, and is an authority on dyscalculia. He believes his findings are the key to diagnosis of dyscalculia.

"Now that we know where to look for the differences in brain activation between those who suffer from dyscalculia and those who don't have the learning disorder, we will be able to come up with better diagnosis and insights," Butterworth said. "Imagine assessing how many men versus women are in a room by counting them at the door as they enter the room, let's say 3 women and 4 men, and then try assessing the difference by looking at the room when everyone is present."

"Both methods of assessing the number of people should produce the same result. Instead of assessing numbers of men and women, subjects saw blue and green squares shown in a sequence or blue and green squares shown on screen at the same time. We found that both methods activated the same brain region."

"But when we showed subjects the colors merged and appearing either as a continuously changing square or as one cloudy colored rectangle different results were produced and a different brain network lit up. This is because the brain was no longer able to try to count the objects. Instead, it had to assess how much color was in the block and guess whether there was more of one color or another."

"By comparing these two types of stimulus, we identified the brain activity specific to estimating numbers of things. We think this is a brain network that underlies arithmetic and may be abnormal in dyscalculics."

The project was supported by the European Union Research Training Network Grant and the Medical Research Council Centre Grant. For more information contact Alex Brew in the UCL press office

News Date: 
Wednesday, May 24, 2006