MIT Researchers Identify Early Detection Method for Dyslexia

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About 10 percent of Americans suffer from dyslexia, a learning disability that can hinder a person’s ability to read, write, and even speak. The condition is characterized by difficulties with accurate word recognition, decoding, and spelling. Dyslexia is neurological and often genetic, but with proper support, almost all with dyslexia can become good readers and writers.

Researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), along with doctors from Boston Children’s Hospital, found that there is a particular area of the brain responsible for connecting two-language processing areas called the arcuate fasciculus. This structure is smaller and less organized in adults with poor reading skills. But is it also true of children?

Using a technique known as diffusion-weighted imaging (based off of MRI), the researchers analyzed the brains of 40 children between the ages of 4 and 6. Those who scored lower on phonological tests, which measures the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language, also had smaller arcuate fasciculus volumes.

Strong phonological skills are linked with the ease of learning to read. So this is just a first step in identifying future learning and reading disabilities. The researchers intend to further study the children as they grow older to see if the brain scanning technique can accurately predict dyslexia.

“We don’t know yet how it plays out over time, and that’s the big question: Can we, through a combination of behavioral and brain measures, get a lot more accurate at seeing who will become a dyslexic child, with the hope that that would motivate aggressive interventions that would help these children right from the start, instead of waiting for them to fail?” says study author John Gabrieli, professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

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As for using the scan to identifying a cause for dyslexia, Gabrieli does not know. The structural differences do not necessarily reflect genetic differences, he says. Environmental influences could also be involved.

The following are common signs of dyslexia in people of different ages. If your child is having difficulties in school, have a professional evaluation completed so that they can receive the attention they need as soon as possible.

Young Children
Trouble With:
• Recognizing letters, matching letters to sounds and blending sounds into speech
• Pronouncing words, for example saying “mawn lower” instead of “lawn mower”
• Learning and correctly using new vocabulary words
• Learning the alphabet, numbers, and days of the week or similar common word sequences
• Rhyming

School-Age Children
Trouble With:
• Mastering the rules of spelling
• Remembering facts and numbers
• Handwriting or with gripping a pencil
• Learning and understanding new skills; instead, relying heavily on memorization
• Reading and spelling, such as reversing letters (d, b) or moving letters around (left, felt)
• Following a sequence of directions
• Trouble with word problems in math

Teenagers and Adults
Trouble With:
• Reading at the expected level
• Understanding non-literal language, such as idioms, jokes, or proverbs
• Reading aloud
• Organizing and managing time
• Trouble summarizing a story
• Learning a foreign language
• Memorizing

Journal Reference:
John D.E. Gabrieli et al. “Tracking the Roots of Reading Ability: White Matter Volume and Integrity Correlate with Phonological Awareness in Prereading and Early-Reading Kindergarten Children”
The Journal of Neuroscience, 14 August 2013, 33(33):13251-13258;doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4383-12.2013

Additional Resources:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Brain scans may help diagnose dyslexia
National Center for Learning Disabilities, What is Dyslexia?

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