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Research Shows Brains of Dyslexics Change as Reading Improves

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Curriculum CenterIs dyslexia brain-based or behavioral? Researchers at the University of Washington are closing in on the answer. Education World news editor Diane Weaver Dunne writes about new dyslexia research. As dyslexic children improve their reading through an effective phonics program, their brain functioning also changes.

A University of Washington study, published in the May issue of the American Journal for Neuroradiology, shows that as dyslexic boys improve their reading abilities through an effective phonics instruction program, their brain metabolism also changes, functioning similar to that of non-dyslexic students.

"The study shows that dyslexics can learn to read more efficiently if given appropriate instruction," said Virginia W. Berninger, Ph.D., one of the study's lead researchers. "It shows that although brain processes can make it more difficult for some children to learn to read, those brain processes can be changed by instructional intervention."

Berninger, Todd L. Richards, and eight other University of Washington researchers conducted the study, The Effects of a Phonologically-Driven Treatement for Dyslexia on Lactate Levels as Measured by Proton MRSI. They used noninvasive imaging technology to map the brain functioning of boys who read normally and compared those results to the brain functioning of dyslexic boys.

The brain images of the dyslexic boys in the study showed significantly greater metabolic activity than the brain images of the boys who read normally. After the initial screening, participants received phonics instruction and attended workshops in science and math for three weeks. The boys worked on processing phonemes, the smallest meaningful segments of language. The 44 different combinations of phonemes (24 consonants plus 20 vowels) produce every word in the English language.

After completing 15 two-hour group sessions, most of the dyslexic boys were reading orally at or above grade level and their metabolism levels were not significantly different from those of the normal readers. One year later, all but two of the dyslexic boys had age-appropriate phonological awareness.

The study results offer promise of developing an effective treatment program for dyslexia. It also supports evidence that the brains of untreated dyslexic children work much harder than the brains of non-dyslexic children during reading and language tasks.

IMAGING TECHNOLOGY REVEALS BRAIN USE

This new research supports previous findings by Berninger and Richards that dyslexia is a brain disorder. In a 1999 study, Dyslexic Children Have Abnormal Brain Lactate Response to Reading-Related Language Tasks, they reported that dyslexic children use nearly five times the brain area as children who read normally while performing simple language tasks.

Richards, a professor of radiology at the University of Washington, said that it is still too early to use imaging as a way of diagnosing dyslexia. "More research and validation studies need to be done," Richards told Education World. "Our study did show a nice difference between dyslexics and normal [readers], but the research would have to be expanded to many more subjects to find out if it could be used for diagnosis.

"We have preliminary results showing that the functional brain imaging characteristics do change after successful therapy," Richards continued. "This research helps to verify that dyslexia is a brain-based disorder and not just a behavioral disorder where parents and teachers often label the child as just being lazy."

The program used was Process Assessment of the Learner (PAL): Intervention.
For more information about the research program of the University of Washington Learning Disabilities Center, order the Process Assessment of the Learner (PAL) Guides for Intervention at (800) 211-8378.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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