Developmental dyscalculia is not associated with atypical brain activation: a univariate fMRI study of arithmetic, magnitude processing, and visuospatial working memory

Fu Yu Kwok, Eric D. Wilkey, Lien Peters, Ellyn Khiu, Rebecca Bull, Kerry Lee, Daniel Ansari*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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Functional neuroimaging serves as a tool to better understand the cerebral correlates of atypical behaviors, such as learning difficulties. While significant advances have been made in characterizing the neural correlates of reading difficulties (developmental dyslexia), comparatively little is known about the neurobiological correlates of mathematical learning difficulties, such as developmental dyscalculia (DD). Furthermore, the available neuroimaging studies of DD are characterized by small sample sizes and variable inclusion criteria, which make it problematic to compare across studies. In addition, studies to date have focused on identifying single deficits in neuronal processing among children with DD (e.g., mental arithmetic), rather than probing differences in brain function across different processing domains that are known to be affected in children with DD. Here, we seek to address the limitations of prior investigations. Specifically, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to probe brain differences between children with and without persistent DD; 68 children (8-10 years old, 30 with DD) participated in an fMRI study designed to investigate group differences in the functional neuroanatomy associated with commonly reported behavioral deficits in children with DD: basic number processing, mental arithmetic and visuo-spatial working memory (VSWM). Behavioral data revealed that children with DD were less accurate than their typically achieving (TA) peers for the basic number processing and arithmetic tasks. No behavioral differences were found for the tasks measuring VSWM. A pre-registered, whole-brain, voxelwise univariate analysis of the fMRI data from the entire sample of children (DD and TA) revealed areas commonly associated with the three tasks (basic number processing, mental arithmetic, and VSWM). However, the examination of differences in brain activation between children with and without DD revealed no consistent group differences in brain activation. In view of these null results, we ran exploratory, Bayesian analyses on the data to quantify the amount of evidence for no group differences. This analysis provides supporting evidence for no group differences across all three tasks. We present the largest fMRI study comparing children with and without persistent DD to date. We found no group differences in brain activation using univariate, frequentist analyses. Moreover, Bayesian analyses revealed evidence for the null hypothesis of no group differences. These findings contradict previous literature and reveal the need to investigate the neural basis of DD using multivariate and network-based approaches to brain imaging.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6308-6325
Number of pages18
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number18
Early online date1 Nov 2023
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2023. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • arithmetic
  • Bayesian
  • developmental dyscalculia
  • fMRI
  • math learning difficulties
  • math learning disability
  • number processing
  • visuo-spatial working memory


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