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Brain Activity Associated with Dyslexia Predates Difficulty Learning to Read

by Carolyn D. Cowen, Ed.M. and Karen E. Dakin, M.Ed.


We may have an answer to a persistent which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg question about dyslexia.

New imaging research in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (January 23, 2012) suggests that brain activity associated with dyslexia occurs even before undertaking the task of learning to read. Previously, it was unclear whether this activity difference results from the struggle to learn to read or predates the difficulty.

The finding that this brain-activity difference exists in pre-reading children underscores the critical importance of early identification of those at risk and the vital need for early intervention, a position long held by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA).

“This research emphasizes the need to start intervention at an early age,” said Guinevere Eden, IDA’s immediate past president and Director of the Center for the Study of Learning and Professor of Pediatrics at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC.

Nadine Gaab, the study’s co-author and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Neuroscience Program at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital said, “Our research shows that brain differences in children with familial risk for dyslexia exist prior to the onset of a reading difficulty. These differences are not a result of compensating or struggling with dyslexia for years.”

In other words, “this research suggests that the brains of people with dyslexia may be developing differently from the start,” said Gordon Sherman, current board member and past national president of IDA

What does this mean for parents and educators of young children?

“It is important for educators and parents to know that these children come to school with these differences, so there is no excuse for waiting to provide help,” Gaab said. “This research supports the imperative to begin intervention early to reduce the emotional consequences of difficulties learning to read and to reduce the severity of these difficulties.”

Should you try to book an fMRI screening for your young pre-reading child if you suspect dyslexia?

“We are not at the stage where we are diagnosing children with fMRI,” said Gaab. “We are not there yet, but we are working hard on it. This is the beginning of a line of research that will help us focus on early intervention and might help trigger policy changes to improve screening to identify those at risk.”

“The question remains, does brain imaging have any additional predictive value beyond the behavioral studies and assessments we already use? Further studies are needed to show that imaging adds to what we currently do, especially because it is more expensive than administering current tests,” she said.

Gaab further cautioned that, “we don’t know yet which of the children in our study will receive a diagnosis of dyslexia in second or third grade, but based on the current literature we expect about 40-50% to develop a reading disability.”

Does this very early brain-activation difference mean the brains of these children are deficient in some way?

Not according to Gordon Sherman, who, in addition to his IDA affiliations, formerly was Director of the Dyslexia Research Lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and currently is Executive Director of Newgrange School and Education Outreach Center.

“It means their brains are developing in ways that are subtly different but not deficient,” said Sherman. “These subtle brain differences, called cerebrodiversity, probably impart advantages to our species. But there are negative consequences for the individual when confronted with environmental demands that do not play to their strengths, such as learning to read. For the most part we do not teach reading in ways that play to the strengths of people with dyslexia.”

What is the take away for parents and educators of young pre-reading children who may be at risk for dyslexia?

Clearly, early identification and early intervention both are critically important. IDA is actively engaged in supporting state-level legislation to advance early intervention and appropriate instruction for children at risk. Visit IDA Model State Literacy Law for resources and support to help guide enacting strong state literacy laws. Click Here for more information about dyslexia.   

The Gaab lab will follow the children in the study over time to see if the brain patterns they observed correlate with a later diagnosis of dyslexia. The lab received funding from NIH to extend their study and now is enrolling children from age 3 months-5 years. For information on enrollment, contact the Gaab lab: gaablab@gmail.com or study coordinator, Ola Ozranov-Palchik: Olga.Ozranov-Palchik@childrens.harvard.edu.


Exciting research across disciplines is contributing important information to a growing body of knowledge about the science of teaching and learning, particularly related to reading and to children with dyslexia. Translating relevant research to practice and implementing and scaling this expertise to improve teaching and learning for all children in schools across the nation is the challenge. To impart the skills needed to function productively and responsibly in a dynamic, rapidly changing global environment, this is a challenge we must meet—especially on behalf of children with dyslexia. IDA’s EXaminer Research Alert! and in-depth articles and papers in both Perspectives on Language and Literacy and in Annals of Dyslexia help our members stay abreast of research developments and findings. Help us spread the word! Share links to the eXaminer and to IDA’s website! 

Karen E. Dakin, M.Ed.: Editor, The eXaminer; Secretary, the International Dyslexia Association Board of Directors

Carolyn D. Cowen, Ed.M.: Social-Media Editor & Strategist, The EXaminer; Executive Director, Carroll School Center for Innovative Education. 


For more information about the research in this alert: