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New Technique Can Help Dyslexic Kids Read Better

The normal paths to reading in the brain can be awakened, researchers report

THURSDAY, Feb. 12, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Specialized training can reorganize the brains of dyslexic children and help them read better, researchers report.

"The idea is to really understand nature-nurture interaction; how the brain influences learning, but also how instruction influences the brain," says Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington's Center on Human Development and Disability.

Berninger is one of three dyslexia experts from the University of Washington scheduled to present their findings Feb. 13 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

Dyslexia is the term used to describe people who have difficulty spelling, writing and reading. Dyslexia is a so-called "neuro-behavioral" disorder that is genetically based. It's not a disease, Berninger says, adding that dyslexics are often gifted and creative.

Approximately 2 million U.S. school children are dyslexic, according to the Educational Resources Information Center.

Berninger says reading is a complex activity involving different parts of the brain. Each word has three "forms" -- how it sounds, how it's spelled and what it means. And each of these forms is processed in a different part of the brain, she says.

Berninger developed methods to teach each of these word forms to elementary school children with dyslexia. The hypothesis is that you have to train for all three forms of the word to help teach a child to read.

Educators debate whether it's more effective to teach reading using phonics, or by emphasizing meaning, Berninger says. However, she found the brain is sensitive to the interrelationship between both sound and meaning.

Dyslexic children could learn to read when instruction made them aware of word forms and their interrelationship, Berninger says.

Before the instruction, tests showed measurable differences in brain activity between children with dyslexia and those without the disorder, the Washington researchers say.

"We did MRI scans on 10 dyslexic and 11 non-dyslexic children," says co-researcher Elizabeth Aylward, a professor of radiology at the Center on Human Development and Disability. The children were in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.

Aylward says there were differences in the activation of specific brain regions between the two groups of children when they were asked to perform a specific word task during the MRI.

After three weeks of specialized training, however, the dyslexic children showed brain activation patterns similar to the normal children during a second MRI. They also improved on reading tests, Aylward says.

"This shows that what the brain is looking for is to create interrelationships between sound and meaning," Berninger says.

"This also shows that you can get kids to improve their reading using the same brain pathways as normal readers," Aylward adds. "Even though dyslexia is a genetically based disorder, there is still enough plasticity in the brain that it can be jump-started."

Says Berninger: "I haven't cured them, but I have shown that they are teachable. These kids are ready to learn when they go back to school, but unfortunately the instructional practices aren't in place in the schools to support this jump-start."

Another member of the Washington team, Dr. Wendy Raskind, a professor of medicine, is looking for genes that contribute to dyslexia. She is studying 111 families who have at least one dyslexic child.

"It is unlikely that dyslexia is a single defect," Raskind says. She believes that different genes are responsible for the various aspects of processing written words, including sound, spelling and meaning.

Knowing which genes are involved may lead to better ways to identify children who are likely to be dyslexic and better approaches to treatment, Raskind says. "It may turn out that you can devise something that trains the brain when children are 2 months old," she adds.

Elena Grigorenko, an associate professor of psychology at the Child Study Center at Yale University, says the new research "proves again that dyslexia is biologically rooted."

Grigorenko notes that dyslexia is really several different problems. Some children cannot process information properly or fast enough while others seem to have weak memories.

Each type requires different remediation strategies. "There is no one recipe that works for everybody," she says.

More information

For more on dyslexia, check with the International Dyslexia Association and the Dyslexia Research Institute.

SOURCES: Elizabeth Aylward, Ph.D., professor, radiology, Center on Human Development and Disability, University of Washington, Seattle; Virginia Berninger, Ph.D., professor, educational psychology, Center on Human Development and Disability, University of Washington, Seattle; Wendy Raskind, M.D., Ph.D., professor, medicine, orthopaedics and psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Center on Human Development and Disability, University of Washington, Seattle; Elena L. Grigorenko, Ph.D., associate professor, psychology, Child Study Center, and deputy director, PACE Center for Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; Feb. 13, 2004, presentation, American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, Seattle
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