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Brain Disorders and Learning

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Dave Moursund


The IAE-pedia entry on Brain Science has recently been extensively revised and expanded. It covers 37 topics in the general area of brain science and education. The following IAE Blog entry summarizes information taken from the IAE-pedia section on Brain Disorders and Learning.


There are a number of brain disorders that affect learning. The Dana Foundation—"Your gateway to information about the brain and brain research"—funds many projects and is a good source of information. For example, see their Brain Connections PDF:

[It] lists more than 240 organizations in the United States likely to help those looking for information, referrals, and other guidance in connection with brain-related disorders. Listings provide mailing addresses, toll-free numbers, e-mail and clickable Web site addresses, and identify the primary services each organization provides.

The Dana Foundation site Brainy Kids provides links to a number of educational resources for kids, parents, and teachers.

An article by Maggie Fox (4/23/2014) provides information on the number of children receiving behavioral modification medications.  Quoting from the article:

A new survey finds that 7.5 percent of children aged 6–17 are taking some sort of prescription medicine for emotional or behavioral difficulties.

It’s a first look at the problem, and supports evidence that more and more U.S. kids are getting drugs for conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

And, unsurprisingly, more boys than girls were being medicated — 9.7 percent compared to 5.2 percent of girls.

Research on Some Specific Brain Disorders

There has been considerable research on specific brain disorders that affect the learning ability of children and adults. The following are three important examples.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and ADD

Here is a definition of ADHD from the Mayo Clinic:

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a chronic condition that affects millions of children and often persists into adulthood. ADHD includes a combination of problems, such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.

Children with ADHD also may struggle with low self-esteem, troubled relationships and poor performance in school. Symptoms sometimes lessen with age. However, some people never completely outgrow their ADHD symptoms. But they can learn strategies to be successful.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) are often grouped together using the acronym AD/HD affect. The total number of people affected depends on the stringency of the definition. Quoting from

Mar. 20, 2002 – ROCHESTER, MINN. – A new Mayo Clinic study shows that attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) affects up to 7.5 percent of school-age children. Previous studies had estimated the occurrence of AD/HD to be anywhere between one and 20 percent of school-age children. The Mayo Clinic report, published in the March [2002] issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, addresses the confusion about the number of children affected by AD/HD.

The study found that the lowest and most conservative estimate of AD/HD occurrence among the study subjects was 7.5 percent by age 19, based on research criteria for AD/HD. These criteria required both a clinical diagnosis of AD/HD and supporting documentation in the medical and school records.

"The 7.5 percent incidence of AD/HD from the current study includes subjects who met the most stringent research criteria and are likely to represent cases that most clinicians would regard as true cases of AD/HD," says William Barbaresi, M.D., a Mayo Clinic developmental and behavioral pediatric specialist and lead author of the study. "This study represents what we believe to be the largest population-based study of the occurrence (incidence) of AD/HD to date."


Here is a definition from the Wikipedia:

Dyscalculia is difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic, such as difficulty in understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate numbers, and learning math facts. It is generally seen as a specific developmental disorder like dyslexia.

Dyscalculia can occur in people from across the whole IQ range, often, but not always, involving difficulties with time, measurement, and spatial reasoning, Estimates of the prevalence of dyscalculia range between 3 and 6% of the population. A quarter of children with dyscalculia have ADHD.

Math disabilities can occur as the result of some types of brain injury, in which case the proper term is acalculia, to distinguish it from dyscalculia which is of innate, genetic or developmental origin.

A May 21, 2012 article in the Post-Gazette reports:

Severe learning disabilities in math, affecting up to 7 percent of all students, have been described as the mathematics version of dyslexia, the reading disorder in which people have trouble understanding or interpreting letters, words and symbols.

The math disorder—dyscalculia—has long been overlooked in the public schools, where the focus traditionally has been reading.


Here is a definition of dyslexia from PatientPlus, a publication written by doctors in the United Kingdom based on research evidence, as well as UK and European Guidelines.

The term dyslexia is used to describe difficulty in the acquisition of reading, writing and spelling skills but not all poor readers are dyslexic. The child's learning difficulties may be caused by:

  • Visual problems through not being able to recognize shape and form.
  • Reading speed, accuracy or comprehension.
  • Phoneme segmentation (cannot see or hear the components and then put them together to create meaning and to spell the words).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) criteria for the diagnosis of dyslexia are:

  • Reading achievement substantially below that expected for the person's age, measured intelligence and age-appropriate education.
  • The disturbance in reading ability interferes with academic achievement or activities of daily living that require reading skills.
  • If a sensory deficit is present, the reading difficulties are in excess of those usually associated with the specific sensory deficit.

The incidence level of dyslexia varies with the definition being used. Quoting again from the site above:

It has been suggested that up to 10% of the population (or even more) show some signs of dyslexia, particularly when it is present in other members of the family.

Quoting Maryanne Wolf from Annie Murphy Paul's The Brilliant Report:

"Dyslexia is our best, most visible evidence that the brain was never wired to read. I look at dyslexia as a daily evolutionary reminder that very different organizations of the brain are possible.… [We must begin] to view children's learning differences in terms of different patterns of brain organization, with genetic variations that bestow both strengths and weaknesses."

Quoting from a National Institute of Health report:

Although it is a common belief that men are significantly more likely to be dyslexic than women, this assumed sex imbalance is not substantiated by recent research. There may be slightly more men than women who have dyslexia, but the difference is not significant.

Combination of Dyscalculia and Dyslexia

The British Dyslexia Association reports that there is a large co-incidence of dyscalculia and dyslexia. Quoting from the site:

Does dyscalculia also affect people with dyslexia?

Research suggests that 40-50% of dyslexics show no signs of dyscalculia. They perform at least as well in maths as other children, with about 10% achieving at a higher level.

The remaining 50-60% do have difficulties with maths. Not surprisingly, difficulty in decoding written words can transfer across into a difficulty in decoding mathematical notation and symbols.

For some dyslexic pupils, however, difficulty with maths may in fact stem from problems with the language surrounding mathematical questions rather than with number concepts – e.g. their dyslexia may cause them to misunderstand the wording of a question.

In summary, dyscalculia and dyslexia occur both independently of each other and together. The strategies for dealing with dyscalculia will be fundamentally the same whether or not the learner is also dyslexic.

What You Can Do

A surprising number of young students who have one or more brain disorders remain undiagnosed. This means they do not receive help overcoming brain disorders while the are still quite young and their brains have a great deal of plasticity. We still have students entering college who have severe dyslexia, dyscalculia, or other relatively prevalent learning disabilities, and who are not even aware of their learning disabilities. I believe this represents a major flaw in our educational system.

Learn to recognize the obvious symptoms for some of the most prevalent brain disorders. When you encounter students who have symptoms of brain disorders, get the students and their parents in touch with the resources that can provide professional diagnosis and (if needed) the types of services required under Federal Law.

As a personal note, many years ago I recognized that a particular second grader I knew was likely dyslexic. Partly because of my observations, this student received needed help and eventually graduated from high school with honors. For me, this was a very gratifying experience.


Fox, M. (4/23/2014). More than 7 Percent of Kids on Behavioral Meds. NBC News. Retrieved 4/26/2014 from


Suggested Readings from IAE

Moursund, D. (11/8/2010). “What Should We Teach Our Kids about Various Handicapping Conditions?” IAE Blog.

Retrieved 4/26/2014 from


Moursund, D. (12/6/2010). “Neuromythologies (Brain Science Mythologies) in Education” IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/24/2014 from


Moursund, D. (1/23/2012). “Dyscalculia and Learning Math.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/26/2014 from


Moursund, D. (3/22/2012). “Diagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Is Increasing.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/26/2014 from


Moursund, D. (10/7/2012). “The Brain Series on PBS Hosted by Charlie Rose and Eric Kandel.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/24/2014 from


Moursund, D. (April, 2014). “Brain Science.” IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/26/2014 from


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