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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • There is a new study in Nature this month showing that basic inherent numerical understanding predicts later mathematical ability. It is increasingly being shown that children (and primates) are born with an inbuilt understanding of number. This basic number ability comprises of being able to estimate and recognise the number of objects in a set (numerosities). Infants as young as one week old react differently to different groups of up to 4 objects suggesting that they recognise the difference between the numbers of objects. This latest study by Justin Halberda and colleagues from John Hopkins University, Baltimore used a test of non verbal number approximation with a group of 14 year olds. The 14 year olds were shown two groups of coloured dots and had to estimate which group was more numerous. The study showed that firstly that there were wide individual differences between the 14 year olds in terms of their ability to make correct non verbal number approximations and secondly that these differences correlate with differences on standard maths tests dating back to kindergarten. This suggests that this basic inherent understanding of number present from birth predicts how well you do at maths throughout school. One of the leading experts in the neuropsychology of maths in the UK Professor Brian Butterworth at UCL has argued for a long time that this difficulty in estimating numerosities lies at the basis for dyscalculia (specific difficulty with maths). He describes this in more detail in our book on Child Neuropsychology (see link at the side of the page). What is uncertain at the moment is what you can do about this. There is no evidence yet to show how you can improve your understanding of numerosities.

    The study itself can be found at the publications section of the webpage of the Laboratory of Child Development at the John Hopkins University

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  • One of the major problems with the internet is wading through the junk and knowing whether what you are reading is correct and valid. In terms of knowledge about neuroscience I would recommend the website Neuroscience for Kids. Although it is aimed at kids it is not simplistic and much of the information is also a useful lay guide to neuroscience for adults. It can also be informative for children especially if they have any injury or illness connected to the brain. I think that this site is an excellent resource and shows the internet at it’s best.

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  • Simon Baron Cohen one of the leading researchers in autism suggests that individuals with autism have a drive to systemise i.e to analyse, explore and construct systems. This is the opposite to empathising which requires understanding other people’s emotions and thoughts which is difficult for individuals with autism. A study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilites reports a new therapy for children with autism based on this theory. In the study children with high functioning autism were given a intervention consisting of playing with lego in a group on a weekly basis. Lego was chosen as it is a systemising toy which children with autism would feel more comfortable with. Using Lego in the context of a social group with clear social rules seems to have been effective. The study reports improved social interaction scores and reduced maladative behaviour. I believe that Simon Baron Cohen’s theory makes a lot of sense and it is good to see the theory resulting in effective intervention. As Simon Baron Cohen has described in the past it is important to understand how children with autism process the world and then to help them to live with their condition.

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  • There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about the use of fish oil to improve learning and behaviour. Is there any substance behind the claims or is it just a fad? Fish always used to be known as brain food and there are good physiological reasons to expect fish oil to help neurodevelopment. Fish oil is a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) containing omega 3. Omega 3 fatty acids make up about 20% of brain and heart membrane. They are thought to speed up nerve and muscle signalling. Many children today have diets very low in fish. One would think therefore that fish oil supplements would help, especially for children with low fish diets. The evidence, however, is not strong. Research in 2005 by Alexandra Richardson and Paul Montgomery from Oxford University showed that omega 3 resulted in improvements with reading, spelling and behaviour (see the Food and Behaviour Research website). However, after these promising initial findings the research hasn’t been so positive.

    The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) review on treatment for ADHD showed that the evidence does not support using omega 3 in the treatment of ADHD.

    A large study was recently carried out in Durham UK with about 3000 children taking fatty acid supplements but there have been concerns about the way the trial was carried out, at the large number of pupils dropping out and the results are disappointing. The difficulties with the study are summarised here on the bad science website.

    One of the leading advocates of the positive effects of fish oil on brain development is Professor John Stein, professor of physiology at Magdelen College, Oxford (and interestingly the brother of famous fish chef Rick Stein). He is currently undertaking a study looking effects on the behaviour of boys in a Young Offenders Institute and this may provide some answers. See

    Until then the jury is still out on the effectiveness on fish oil on neurodevelopment. There are some promising signs and from a biological perspective it does seem make sense, however, the evidence is not there at the moment to make clinical or policy recommendations. I will post any updates on this topic here.

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