Number crunch

Dr Anna Wilson, who is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Canterbury.
Dr Anna Wilson, who is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Canterbury.

For some people, who have a learning disability known as dyscalculia, trouble with numbers goes well beyond difficulty remembering times tables. KIM NEWTH meets Christchurch researcher Dr Anna Wilson, who is exploring how the brain may hold the key to overcoming this disability.

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Mathematics may not have been your strongest subject at school, but chances are you know enough to get by: how to do basic percentages, manage online banking and what you would have to pay if you split a cafe bill with a friend.

It's surprising how often basic maths crops up in our daily lives and for most of us that's not a problem.

However, people with dyscalculia cannot do these number tasks. It is believed about 6 per cent of the population is affected.

"I've struggled with mathematics and numbers all my life, from the basics of dialling a phone to seemingly simple addition and subtraction," says a 37-year-old with dyscalculia. "I have no trouble whatsoever reading or writing, but spend an hour sitting in the bank trying to work out how much money is in my cheque account.

"Last year, I returned to university, attempting to avoid any papers containing mathematics, but hidden in nearly everything are formulas and calculations. This is a huge problem in my life."

Research in this field has lagged behind that other major learning disability, dyslexia, but is starting to catch up, bringing hope that early detection and intervention could eventually help reduce or even eliminate this kind of severe number trouble.

Dr Anna Wilson, who is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Canterbury, is something of a trailblazer in this country on the subject of dyscalculia. A lecturer at the College of Education, University of Canterbury, she also teaches educational psychology and neuroscience. Along with other international researchers, she is investigating how very young children might be screened for latent numeracy problems even before they start school and at-risk children targeted with cheap and effective interventions.

Between 2003 and 2006, she worked in Paris on a project to design, develop and test remediation software for dyscalculia. Called The Number Race, this software is open source, free to download and primarily designed for children aged 4 to 8.

A new, improved version of this software has since been developed in collaboration with a team of researchers in Finland.

A version for older children is also now available called The Number Catcher. (Read all about it at thenumberrace.com.)

Christchurch children with low numeracy scores are the first in the world to be tested with the improved version of The Number Race. One of Wilson's master's degree students, Patricia Kant, has been testing it in two schools: St Albans and St Patricks, working with eight 6-year- olds from each of those schools.

"They used the software at home, for 20 minutes to half an hour a night for four weeks. They were measured as to how they were doing in maths before and after using this software and we're now working through the results. If we find there's been a really big effect, in terms of boosting their numeracy, we'd like to follow it up with brain studies, either here or overseas."

Research on how the brain functions in people with dyscalculia is very much in its infancy, but is producing some interesting findings. It seems that when we are busy solving number problems, a particular part of our brain lights up known as the intraparietal sulcus.

"We think this was a core capacity developed as part of evolution. We needed to figure out which tree had more berries, how many spears we needed for the hunt and so on. It's still that part of the brain we use today when we calculate a budget or pay the bills."

If this part of the brain isn't working well, or perhaps isn't properly hooked up to other parts of the brain, it interferes with our ability to process number information.

Specialised software, such as The Number Race, has been developed with the intraparietal sulcus in mind, the goal being to give that part of the brain a good workout.

"It's also been designed to be very entertaining for children and to provide lots of rewards. It keeps pace with their ability level, so they will get things right 75 per cent of the time. It means they're mostly experiencing success and that boosts confidence with numbers too."

Wilson has also studied the co- morbidity of dyscalculia and dyslexia in adults as a postdoctoral fellow with Professor Karen Waldie at the University of Auckland.

This involved using brain imaging to compare brain activity in four groups of people: those with dyscalculia, those with dyslexia, those with both and those with neither. One of their findings was that people with both dyslexia and dyscalculia had to make their brains work a lot harder to solve word and number tests.

Personal experience first sparked Wilson's interest in learning disabilities and how these might be overcome. Growing up, she knew two people with dyslexia and dyscalculia and saw how, with considerable effort, they were eventually able to achieve their potential.

"Conversely, without intervention, these sorts of learning disabilities can have such a negative impact. Kids who fall behind with maths get increasingly anxious and start avoiding it if they can."

She has met many adults with dyscalculia who are completely lost with fractions and percentages.

"I met one lady in Auckland who was very skilled verbally and sent me well-written emails.

"She was top of her class in English and the manager of a company, but finance and budgets were a major problem for her.

"If we could nip this kind of problem in the bud from the start, it would be one of the best things we could do."

 

BRAIN AWARENESS

Dr Anna Wilson will give a talk on Wednesday, during Brain Awareness Week, from March 11 to 15, at the University of Canterbury entitled: What if . . . Neuroscience could Change Education? in which dyscalculia will be used as an example.

For further information, see canterbury.ac.nz/wiw.

For further information about dyscalculia, see aboutdyscalculia.org.

The Press