A New Way To Evaluate Dyslexia

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California have developed a new way to predict whether children with dyslexia will likely improve their reading skills over time or retain early difficulties with the task. The researchers were able to identify specific types of brain activity present in children whose reading ability improve over time. These same types of brain activity were absent in those readers who continue to have severe difficulties as they grow up.

 Lead researcher John Gabrieli (Credit: Kent Dayton, MIT)
Lead researcher John Gabrieli (Credit: Kent Dayton, MIT)

Functional MRI scans of brain activity in 25 dyslexic and 20 non-dislexic children aged 11 through 14 were taken along with measurements of current reading ability. Two and half years later, the reading ability measurements were repeated. The dyslexic children who showed the most improvement all had significant activity in the right prefrontal cortex in their initial scans. They also had the strongest white matter or nerve bundle connections in the same region. The right prefrontal cortex is associated with visual memory and the scientists believe the successful dyslexic readers are memorizing words to help them read. This bypasses the more normal route which typically involves translating letters into sounds to form words engaging the verbal processing centers found in the left hemisphere of the brain. The researchers have not yet determined the role of the increased white matter in the alternate reading methods adopted by the successful dyslexics in the study.

Another interesting result is that metrics currently in wide use to evaluate dyslexics and their potential for improved reading do not appear to have any actual correlation to how much reading levels improve over time. In particular, intelligence and IQ do not appear to be significant factors in how well dyslexics learn to read.

Much more research is needed in this area, especially with younger children at earlier stages in their learning process. However, these initial findings suggest that reading instruction using several alternate methods or, at the very least, not explicitly tied to the most common method of sounding out letters would greatly help children learn to read at their full potential (whatever that may be for each individual child).

TFOT has previously reported on other research examining brain activity under various conditions  including an ultrasound helmet designed to increase brain activity to increase alertness in soldier and to treat various neurological conditions, a study examining how brain activity oscillates at different frequencies when subjects are shown different visual stimuli, and a study showing that surfing the web can increase brain activity in older adults.

Read more about these methods for predicting reading ability in this MIT press release or this Stanford University School of Medicine press release.