Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=199357
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Brain scans bring researchers closer to early dyslexia diagnosis

by Mitch Montoya
Jan 27, 2012


dyslexia_graph

Mitch Montoya/MEDILL (Data from the National Assessment of Reading Progress.)

Reading scores are often predictors of learning disabilities, Shapiro said. In 2011, the percentage of students scoring below basic reading level ranged from 23 to 35 percent.

dyslexia_graph2

Mitch Montoya/MEDILL (Data from the National Assessment of Reading Progress.)

The percentage of students scoring below basic has dropped since 1992, but the number still has some educators concerned.

Children with learning disabilities often find the first few years of school harrowing. But brain scans of

at-risk children may catch signs of dyslexia before problems emerge, a new study suggests.

Children at risk for dyslexia show differences in brain activity in MRIs as early as age 4 or 5, the study shows. The study was conducted by a team from Children’s Hospital Boston and was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. Most children are not diagnosed until about third grade, but earlier treatment is usually more effective, researchers noted.

“These types of techniques could predict reading outcomes perhaps better than behavioral tests, which aren’t always great,” said Nadine Gaab, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s in Boston and an author of the study. Since children are often too impatient for behavior tests, these scans could provide a more objective test for dyslexia, she said.

Dyslexia affects around 5 to 17 percent of all children and is characterized by difficulties recognizing words and poor spelling, according to the study.

Researhers scanned the brains of 36 children, half with a family history of dyslexia, to see whether dyslexic brains looked different than normal brains.

“Interventions have been shown to be more effective in 1st grade and kindergarten even though dyslexia is often not diagnosed until third grade,” Gaab said. “It may be because reading networks are not entirely formed in the brain or that their manipulation of the language is not fully developed.”

Children treated early can avoid the embarrassing process of going through school with a learning disability, said Holly Shapiro, speech pathologist and director of Ravinia Reading Center in Highland Park.

“They have a very good kind of mind but not one that does well in our schools,” Shapiro said.

Using brain scans to actually diagnose dyslexia, however, may be years away.

“At this point we cannot use this as a diagnostic tool,” Gaab said. “We don’t know if just because they have a family history that this will actually develop into dyslexia or lead to a diagnosis.”

While MRIs show differences in brain activity, they can’t tell researchers whether those differences matter.

Normal brains often show variability in their activation patterns, said Douglas Whiteside, a neuropsychologist at the Adler School of Psychology. But that does not always translate to a learning disability or a problem. The research Gaab’s team is conducting, however, is heading in the right direction in terms of finding patterns in parts of the brain associated with reading and learning, he said.

For children with dyslexia, a quick diagnostic method could perhaps spare a lifetime of problems feeling frustrated and outperformed by peers, Shapiro said.

“Feelings of disappointment stick with them for life,” she said. “I’ve known the best medical doctors who win awards but still remember feeling like that couldn’t do the same things as other students.”