Images of the brain could unlock learning difficulties

Apr 5, 2013

Researchers in western New York have been using brain scans to add to our understanding of how humans comprehend numbers. The new data could have implications in diagnosing learning disabilities earlier on, and aid in our understanding of why some kids struggle at school.

Jessica Cantlon is a 2013 Sloan Research Fellow, and one of the lead researchers on a team of brain and cognitive scientists at the University of Rochester who are looking for answers in neural imaging.

She says the data they’re able to collect from children’s brain scans could be used to determine the probability of children encountering problems with subjects like math later in life.

“It might be the case that brain scans from a four-year-old child could reveal that they are going to, in the future, potentially have some mathematical difficulties, so that’s one advantage of having this neural imaging data,” says Cantlon.

“On one end of the spectrum we have shown that there is this evolutionarily primitive neural basis for math that’s present in young children. And so the more we understand about what things should look like from a young age, the earlier we might be able to tell that something’s going wrong.”

Cantlon says the current method used to assess children struggling at school is behavior examination, but that can be ambiguous and inconclusive.

“When children are older and they're showing behavioral impairments in mathematics and school, there could be a number of reasons for that.”

Cantlon says that difficulties could come from a lack of understanding of number and letter symbols, as well as what they mean. The child could also have a more general deficit such as a memory or attention deficit.

She says the more understanding there is about how the brain of a typical child functions when performing basic academic tasks like math, the easier it will be to pinpoint what part of the brain's system is breaking down in children exhibiting learning difficulties.

Cantlon says analysis of the brain scans can show what parts of the brain are typically involved and active during tasks like number recognition or performing basic equations. This knowledge could provide the base for comparison with the brains of children exhibiting behavioral or learning difficulties.

She says this would make diagnosis simpler and also would make it easier for teachers and parents to address the issue through altered approaches to teaching.

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The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between six upstate New York public media outlets. The initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), helps the public gain a better understanding of the connection between technological breakthroughs and the revitalization of the upstate New York economy.