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By Patricia Reaney
Manchester - If you're bad at maths, it may be because you have an abnormal brain.
A learning disability that affects five percent of the population could be caused by abnormalities in an area of the brain involved in understanding numbers, a leading scientist said on Wednesday.
Dyscalculia impairs a person's ability to learn mathematical skills. Sufferers have problems with adding, subtracting, mental arithmetic and other numerical tasks.
Dr Stanislas Dehaene, of the French medical research institute INSERM, used brain imaging techniques to detect a coding system used in the brain to understand the quantity a number represents, which has shed new light on dyscalculia.
"We think we understand now what the code is in this area," he told the British Association for the Advancement of Science conference.
Animal research has shown that neurones in the brain are tuned to numbers such as three or five, which scientists said is useful for keeping track of their young or for foraging for food. Dehaene and his colleagues found a similar coding system exists in humans.
He and his team studied people with Turner's syndrome, a genetic disorder which only affects women and is caused by the complete or partial absence of one of the two X chromosomes.
The scientists showed that the syndrome is associated with dyscalculia, and people with Turner's have abnormalities in the area of their brain linked to number coding.
"Impairment of that region, possibly of genetic origin, results in dyscalculia," Dehaene explained.
Professor Brian Butterworth, of University College London, who conducted a counting experiment which could form the basis of a test for dyscalculia, described it is an agonising disorder for children.
"It makes their life a misery," he told the meeting.
He said a simple way of diagnosing the problem and alerting teachers and parents, and the children themselves, to the condition was needed.
"What I would like to see is that children diagnosed with dyscalculia do not have to suffer the daily humiliation of the math lesson and that they have special support, just the same way that dyslexics have special support," he added.