Children who struggle to learn mathematics may have a neurocognitive disorder, called Dyscalculia, that inhibits the acquisition of basic numerical and arithmetic concepts, according to a new research study conducted by University of Minnesota and British researchers.

The disorder, which is also called developmental dyscalculia, affects the acquisition of arithmetic skills in an otherwise-normal child. 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 was published on 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, studied how people understand complex symbol systems such as mathematics and language, and the neural underpinnings of this understanding.

In 2008, Varma 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.