Stable measures of number sense accuracy in math learning disability: Is it time to proceed from basic science to clinical application?

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Math learning disability (MLD) or developmental dyscalculia is a highly prevalent and persistent difficulty in learning arithmetic that may be explained by different cognitive mechanisms. The accuracy of the number sense has been implicated by some evidence as a core deficit in MLD. However, research on this topic has been mainly conducted in demographically selected samples, using arbitrary cut-off scores to characterize MLD. The clinical relevance of the association between number sense and MLD remains to be investigated. In this study, we aimed at assessing the stability of a number sense accuracy measure (w) across five experimental sessions, in two clinically defined cases of MLD. Stable measures of number sense accuracy estimate are required to clinically characterize subtypes of MLD and to make theoretical inferences regarding the underlying cognitive mechanisms. G. A. was a 10-year-old boy with MLD in the context of dyslexia and phonological processing impairment and his performance remained steadily in the typical scores range. The performance of H. V., a 9-year-old girl with MLD associated with number sense inaccuracy, remained consistently impaired across measurements, with a nonsignificant tendency to worsen. Qualitatively, H. V.'s performance was also characterized by greater variability across sessions. Concomitant clinical observations suggested that H. V.'s difficulties could be aggravated by developing symptoms of mathematics anxiety. Results in these two cases are in line with the hypotheses that at least two reliable patterns of cognitive impairment may underlie math learning difficulties in MLD, one related to number sense inaccuracy and the other to phonological processing impairment. Additionally, it indicates the need for more translational research in order to examine the usefulness and validity of theoretical advances in numerical cognition to the clinical neuropsychological practice with MLD.

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