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How do you solve a problem like dyscalculia?

Studying how a healthy person’s brain processes numbers could help neuroscientists unlock what causes dyscalculia – sometimes called ‘maths dyslexia’ – and lead to solutions to fix it. Credit: Shutterstock/ R. MACKAY PHOTOGRAPHY, LLC
Studying how a healthy person’s brain processes numbers could help neuroscientists unlock what causes dyscalculia – sometimes called ‘maths dyslexia’ – and lead to solutions to fix it. Credit: Shutterstock/ R. MACKAY PHOTOGRAPHY, LLC

Splitting a restaurant bill, budgeting for a weekly shopping trip, or telling the time: all simple, everyday tasks, except for sufferers of dyscalculia.

It is thought that around 5 % of people in Europe may suffer from the condition, which can cause problems with estimating numbers, counting backwards and mental arithmetic.

Researchers are trying to find out more about how our brains process numbers and what is going on when they have problems doing so, in a bid to find solutions and increase the knowledge of the condition.

‘I receive emails from parents of children, as well as adults, who have maths difficulties. They live in frustration, not knowing what’s wrong with them until they understand that there’s a name for it,’ said Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh of the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology.

He is leading the LEARNING&ACHIEVEMENT project, funded by the EU's European Research Council, which is examining cognitive development in healthy subjects. ‘We want to establish what happens in the healthy developing brain before examining those that have atypical development,’ said Prof. Cohen Kadosh. ‘It will give us a much more powerful and fuller understanding to start with what’s working, and then know what’s not and why not.’

The researchers use tests to assess cognitive function in mathematical and non-mathematical abilities and, in tandem, assess how the brain is developing. The aim is to better understand how the brain’s ability to cope with numbers fits in with its other areas.

‘We know that maths abilities are not single entities – they interact with other cognitive abilities. Giving a more unified and integrative picture of maths ability is one of our goals.’

If you had dyscalculia, you would have trouble...

Although Prof. Cohen Kadosh’s project will not have immediate practical applications, finding out more about how the brain works with respect to mathematical abilities will help dyscalculia sufferers by allowing them to understand their condition better.

‘You know that you are not stupid so it is something that will not affect as deeply on your self-esteem. You will get some help and it will be recognised by your teachers or environment, and that in itself is important,’ he said.

One perspective being explored by a separate group of researchers is the relationship between mathematical abilities and how well our brains process visual and spatial information, so-called visuospatial working memory.

Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel are studying the role of visuospatial working memory in children with typical development and college students with dyscalculia. The idea is to find out more about how we count up numbers by visualising them in our heads.

‘A low level of visuospatial working memory blocks the ability to represent numbers mentally and the understanding of numbers is different.’

VISUOQUANT is at an early stage but Dr Sarit Ashkenazi, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, hopes her research could lead to ways to help those with dyscalculia, including computer-based training. ‘I think it looks promising even though it is not designed directly to help with maths but to improve visuospatial working memory. I hope that this will give some solutions for children and adults with difficulties in maths,’ she said.


Elsewhere, researchers are investigating the relationship between the brain’s ability to deal with non-countable dimensions - such as size and area - and the development of arithmetic.

Professor Avishai Henik of the Cognitive Neuropsychology Lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel is leading the SMINC project, funded by the EU’s European Research Council. ‘In numerical cognition most of the research is about discrete variables, countable properties – how many dots are there,’ he said.

‘What my grant suggests is that we have to look at non-countable dimensions. If there are two glasses of water, which has more water?’

‘A low level of visuospatial working memory blocks the ability to represent numbers mentally.’

Dr Sarit Ashkenazi, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

The research is based on a phenomenon called the size-congruity effect, in which subjects are shown a visual representation of two digits that differ both in physical size and numerical values and asked to say which is larger.

If the digits the subjects are shown have incongruent physical size – a small ‘8’ and a huge ‘2’ – that slows down people’s answers. ‘If you’re asked to ignore the numerical value and just look at the physical size, the numerical value will affect your performance only if you’re proficient with numerical systems,’ Prof. Henik said.

Very young children do not show this effect – it begins to develop during first grade – but Prof. Henik’s team has shown that dyscalculic adults show an effect similar to that of first graders.

‘Our preliminary results with dyscalculic adults look as if they have difficulties with conceptual sizes, suggesting that they may have a problem with evaluating sizes,’ he said.

‘If we can continue with this and prove that it is true, it means that we might be able to diagnose dyscalculia, or proneness to dyscalculia, very early on in kindergarten, when children aren’t really familiar with the numerical system but they are familiar with the size of objects.’

Once the problem has been identified it will be easier to come up with solutions, which could include video games to help train dyscalculics to overcome their difficulties evaluating sizes, Prof. Henik said.

‘The question is whether training in sizes will help later on with arithmetic. We first have to show that there is a connection.’

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