(NEWARK) – In a scientific first, researchers have shown that the brains of dyslexic children can be "rewired" through intensive remedial training to function more like those found in normal readers.
Paula Tallal, Board of Governors Professor of Neuroscience at Rutgers-Newark, and other members of a multi-university research team used brain-imaging scans of dyslexic children to demonstrate that areas of the brain critical to reading skills became activated for the first time and began to function more normally after only eight weeks of special training. In addition, other regions of the brain also lit up on the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans in a compensatory process that the dyslexics may have used as they learned to read more fluently.
The researchers' groundbreaking findings were published Feb. 24 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. The other authors include faculty from Stanford and Cornell universities, the University of California's Los Angeles and San Francisco campuses, and one of the co-founders of Oakland-based Scientific Learning Corporation.
Dyslexia, sometimes called "word blindness," is a disorder that affects 5 to 10 percent of Americans, and is characterized by difficulties in processing language. Usually these problems are severe enough to interfere with performance in school, but they cannot be attributed to a poor education, personal motivation, or impaired sight or hearing.
The investigators, working at Stanford, extensively used Fast ForWord Language, a computer program designed by Tallal and other researchers at Scientific Learning Corporation. The program focuses on helping children become more adept at processing the rapidly changing sounds inside words. A dyslexic child may, for example, have difficulties distinguishing between letters that rhyme, such as B and D.
"If you hear the sound 'ba' in 'butter' and 'da' in 'Doug,' the only way we know the difference is in the first 40 milliseconds of the onset of those sounds," Tallal explained. "The ability to extract sounds out of words is what is called phonological awareness." Words can be broken into sounds, and these sounds have to be mentally connected with letters. Although the process might seem intuitive, it is actually a learned skill, Tallal said.
One portion of the study involved asking children if two letters of the alphabet rhymed, while their brains were imaged with fMRI scans. The scans of the 20 dyslexic children in the experiment – who struggled with the task – contrasted sharply with those of the 12 normal readers in the experiment's control group. The dyslexics' scans showed a lack of activity in the language-critical temporal regions of the brain.
The training program, which included dyslexic children aged 8 to 12 years, was designed to help them learn to process and interpret the very rapid sequence of sounds within words and sentences by exaggerating them and slowing them down.
"These are the building blocks you have to have in place before you can learn to read," Tallal said. "I think Fast ForWord is building the scaffolding for reading, and doing it based on scientific knowledge of the most efficient and effective way of helping the brain learn."
The dyslexic children used the Fast ForWord Language computer program for 100 minutes a day, five days a week, as part of their regular school day. The program consisted of seven exercises adapted as computer games. In one exercise, for example, when a picture of a boy and a toy was shown, a voice from the computer asked the player to point to the boy – a step that required understanding the very brief difference in the sound of each word's first consonant.
"Each child worked at his or her own level," Tallal said. The goal was to have the children process sounds correctly in words and sentences of increasing length and grammatical complexity, she added. The study's authors emphasized that continuous intervention would be necessary to make the dyslexics' improvements in reading skills stick and advance.
"In light of President [George W.] Bush's legislation, 'No Child Left Behind,' which mandates that only scientifically validated applications be used for intervening with children, this program has the potential to help address the crisis we are facing in the large number of children failing to meet [educational] standards," Tallal observed.
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