Dyslexia's Brain Changes May Occur Before Kids Learn to
MONDAY, Jan. 23 (HealthDay News) -- New imaging research shows
that the reduced brain activity associated with the onset of
dyslexia appears to develop before, not after, a child starts to
Key parts of the brain's rear left hemisphere critical to
language processing do not undergo activity changes as a
consequence of dyslexia, the study suggests, but may instead be
part of the cause.
The finding could ultimately help clinicians screen for at-risk
children at an early pre-reading age, when interventions to reduce
the severity of the condition might be most effective.
"We already knew that children and adults with a diagnosis of dyslexia show brain alterations within the left posterior -- back -- part of the brain," said study co-author Nadine Gaab, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the neuroscience program at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston. "However, it was unclear whether these alterations are a result of dyslexia [that] show up after years of reading failure or whether they predate the reading onset," she noted.
"[Here] we could show that they predate reading onset," Gaab said. "This suggests that children are either born with it or that it develops within the first few years of life."
The study, published in the Jan. 23 issue of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on 36 healthy kindergarteners aged 5 and 6 years who had not begun to read.
Half of the children were at a high risk for developing
dyslexia, as at least one of their immediate family members had
been previously diagnosed with the disability. None of the children
had difficulty with hearing or vision, and none had a history of
either neurological or psychological illness.
After completing standard pre-reading language and vocabulary
skills assessments, all of the children participated in a couple of
audio-identification tasks. First, they were asked to listen to a
male or female voice uttering a single word twice and then indicate
if the two words sounded the same. Next, they listened to a pairing
of words and were asked to indicate if the gender of the voice
uttering each successive word was the same.
Throughout the testing, the children also underwent functional
MRI (fMRI) to monitor their brain activity, with particular focus
on two regions of the rear, left brain: the bilateral
occipitotemporal and left temporoparietal areas. Both have
previously been shown to have a role in dyslexia.
The results: Children in the at-risk group were found to have
reduced brain activity in the two key brain areas, compared to
their peers with similar age and IQ who did not have family risk
In addition, the research team found that among at-risk
pre-reading children there was no evidence of activity
increases in key frontal lobe brain regions previously linked
to dyslexia. This, they said, suggested that the brain's method for
trying to compensate for the problems associated with dyslexia does
not appear to be set in motion until after children begin to
"Early identification of children at risk in kindergarten or even before then offers a chance to reduce the clinical, psychological and social implications of reading disability/dyslexia," Gaab said. "Identifying early predictors will also help educators, parents and scientists to find ways to support the academic and cognitive development of children with reading disability/dyslexia and may also lead to strategies that will reduce the severity of reading disability."
Guinevere Eden, director of the Center for the Study of Learning
and a professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University in
Washington, D.C., expressed enthusiasm for what she deemed to be
"the first study of its kind."
"The question has always been, are these physiological changes the result of dyslexia or are they there to begin with?" said Eden, who is also the immediate past-president of the International Dyslexia Association.
"And so what's interesting about this study, is that by using non-invasive tools, they were able to find that the kind of differences that have been shown in older people with dyslexia are apparently already present in children at risk for dyslexia before they even begin to read," Eden said.
"And that means they have found a physiological signature for a child who is likely at risk for dyslexia, which will be of great help in doing what everyone really wants to do: identifying and treating children with dyslexia as early as possible," Eden added.
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