Health Scan: Dyscalculia findings just add up

Doctors have located a brain region that may be involved in assessing numbers.

numbers 88 (photo credit: )
numbers 88
(photo credit: )
A Ben-Gurion University scientist who is a research fellow at University College London has shed light on the factors involved in dyscalculia - a learning disability suffered by between two and eight percent of the population that makes it difficult for them to deal with numbers. The condition, similar to the way reading is difficult for dyslectics, is hard not only on children who fail math in school, but also on adults who have difficulty shopping, following a budget or making even the simplest calculations. Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh, with colleagues in London, located a brain region they think is involved in assessing numbers and found a way to trigger dyscalculia temporarily in people with normal math skills. Their findings were published recently in Current Biology. Five adults with normal math skills were asked to solve number-recognition problems in more than 500 trials while Cohen Kadosh examined brain regions with magnetic pulses. When given two different numbers, if the larger one is printed in bigger print, the subject is able to answer slightly faster than if they appear in the same-sized font. If the smaller number appears in a larger font than the bigger number, the normal person will answer more slowly. But when a certain region of the subject's right parietal lobe is stimulated by electricity, they performed the same as people suffering from dyscalculia, who were not influenced by the size of font when asked which number was bigger. Although turning off an individual's math skills by stimulating a specific part of the brain will not cure dyscalculia but merely trigger it momentarily, Cohen Kadosh thinks this knowledge will help diagnose the learning disability at a young age and ameliorate the condition with training, just as dyslexia can be eased at a young age. Perhaps, he added, the understanding of what part of the brain is involved in dyscalculia can lead to a cure. But the BGU scientist's proof that dyscalculia is a neurological disorder should be explained to educators, who might want to blame pupils for being "lazy" or "inattentive" when they fail to answer math questions correctly. AUTOIMMUNE PUZZLE SOLVED Technion researchers have managed to decipher the final stage in the activation of T-cell lymphocytes that are vital in the body's immune system, and are involved in how the body copes with the AIDS virus and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS). Experts say the discovery could help in the development of drugs for MS, cancers and allergies. In articles just published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry andProceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Dr. Yaron Bogen (doing his doctorate under the supervision of Dr. Debby Jablonski of the Technion's Rappaport Faculty of Medicine), discovered this important phase of T cells, which help the body fight infections. If they do not function properly, they can trigger autoimmune disease - in which the immune system mistakenly recognizes body cells as "the enemy" and destroys them. Other autoimmune diseases are rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes. For T cells to function properly, they must react in a controlled manner to signals that come from the environment via processes called "intra-cellular signal transfer channels." In these processes, signals outside the cells are "translated" by a series of biochemical events into intra-cellular reactions. Enzymes play a major role in these processes. Bogen discovered how a tyrosine kinase enzyme found in T cells and called ITK is activated by a coordinating protein called SLP-76. Two proteins link up after the signal arrives from the T cell receptor, he explains, and then SLP-76 binds to a part of the ITK that is in the cell and activates it. The two proteins must be bound together for ITK to remain active, he said. The journal article offered proof that SLP-76 does more than one thing to activate T cells, while the PNAS article revealed how SLP-76 causes the activation of ITK. AUTISM RESEARCH COMMITTEEATALUT A scientific advisory committee to promote research into autism has been established by ALUT (the Israel Society for Autistic Children) in memory of Lea Rabin, who was the society's longtime president and chairman. Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog welcomed the initiative, which was launched on April 17, Lea Rabin's birthday. The scientific committee - to be headed by Prof. Michael Sela, former president of the Weizmann Institute and an Israel Prize laureate - will accept research proposals and allocate grants by ALUT and outside donors. Other committee members will be scientists such as Prof. Michal Schwartz and Prof. Ada Yonath.