Can brain scans predict dyslexia?

Brain scans performed on young children could predict their reading ability in later life.

Performing brain scans on young children could detect signs of early reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, new research has suggested.

Dyslexia is one of the most common learning difficulties, whereby the affected individual typically experiences problems with factors like verbal memory, the speed of verbal processing and phonological awareness. According to the NHS, an estimated one in every ten people in the UK has dyslexia to some degree.

Boy having mire scan
Boy having mire scan

Diagnosing the condition in young children can be tricky, as the signs are not always clear. But research has shown that the earlier it is identified, the sooner appropriate interventions for treatment can be put in place – subsequently helping the child to improve their reading and writing at the earliest stage possible.

The latest study of dyslexia comes from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). They set out to investigate whether the white matter in children’s brains – which is crucial in helping us to think, learn and perceive – could predict their reading abilities in later childhood.

In order to examine this section in detail, the scientists conducted brain scans on 38 nursery school pupils and monitored the development of their white matter until they reached the third year of primary school.

The study found that the development of the children’s white matter was a significant indicator of their reading abilities. In particular, differences in areas of left dorsal white matter – associated with phonological processes – predicted 56 per cent of the variance in reading outcomes. The ability to process words phonologically is a key requirement of reading and detecting problems at an early stage serves as a biomarker for reading difficulties.

Dr Fumiko Hoeft, lead researcher at the university, said: “Early identification and interventions are extremely important in children with dyslexia as well as most neurodevelopmental disorders.

“Accumulation of research evidence such as ours may one day help us identify kids who might be at risk for dyslexia, rather than waiting for children to become poor readers and experience failure.”

Other common ways to assess a child’s reading abilities include looking at IQ levels, socioeconomic factors, early language skills and a family history of reading difficulties. However, the recent study revealed that performing brain scans improved the accuracy of reading ability predictions by 60 per cent.

Dr Hoeft added that by examining white brain matter at a critical milestone in a child’s life – when they begin school and learn how to read – contributed towards the effectiveness of predicting their reading ability.

Following the study, Chelsea Myers – lab manager in UCSF’s Laboratory for Educational Neuroscience – said it is hoped that the findings will raise awareness and understanding of children’s neurocognitive profiles among teachers, parents and carers, so they can provide the appropriate treatment and facilities – especially for children with dyslexia.

One effective treatment is the use of assistive technologies. These are digital software tools that can be executed in the classroom or at home and are an interactive way of teaching children with learning difficulties. Through a series of fun-filled, educational games and activities, the child can work through each one at their own pace, all the while enhancing their literacy and numeracy skills.
For example, the Lucid Comprehension Booster programme allows children to work with texts that vary in content and complexity, helping to improve their level of reading and comprehension. It also has a function to specially tailor the tasks to the child’s individual rate of learning and requires minimal supervision.

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Dyslexic children at school ‘struggle on multiple fronts’

When children with disabilities and learning difficulties such as dyslexia begin school, their behaviour tends to get worse, a new study has suggested.

The latest data comes from the Millennium Cohort Study, in which researchers from the Institute of Education, the London School of Economics (LSE) and the National Children’s Bureau analysed information on around 6,371 children born in 2000 and 2001 in the UK.

This study records information provided by parents on their child’s relationship, behavioural and emotional issues at the ages of three, five and seven.

teacher helping young primary school student
teacher helping young primary school student

The researchers set out to compare such factors between children without disabilities and those who have a variety of learning, developmental and health problems, including special educational needs.

By comparing the records, differences between the two groups could be identified. It was found that children with long-term illnesses and learning difficulties like dyslexia were more likely to have emotional problems, struggle to form relationships with other children and display hyperactive behaviour.

It was noted that these issues were most severe between the ages of three and seven.

Lucinda Platt, professor at the LSE department of social policy, said: “If schools could be more aware that those with disabilities are likely to be struggling in multiple ways then they might be able to intervene earlier on.”

Speaking about the findings, Philippa Stobbs – assistant director of the Council for Disabled Children – said it should be “imperative that we focus on improving the learning environment for our youngest and most vulnerable children”.

One way for teachers, parents and carers to enhance the skills of children with learning disabilities is to make use of assistive technologies. These are digital software tools specially designed to help those struggling with subjects such as maths and English. By working through each fun-filled activity, the child can increase their numeracy and literacy knowledge, and boost their level of self-esteem.

This could contribute towards significantly improving their behaviour in the school environment, as they will feel less frustrated, more confident and at ease around their peers who don’t have learning difficulties.

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Language development could be hereditary, according to study

The development of language during infancy could be determined by genetic factors, new research has suggested.

At around ten to 15 months of age, infants begin to produce words, with their range of vocabulary increasing as they grow older. Typically, a child will have a vocabulary of 50,000 words by the time they finish secondary school.

Researchers at the University of Bristol along with colleagues from around the world set out to investigate whether there is a link between genetic changes near the ROBO2 gene – which may be responsible for helping infants to produce sounds and develop language – and the number of words spoken by children in the first stages of language development.

They analysed data from over 10,000 children, assessing their level of expressive vocabulary at 15 to 18 months of age and at 24 to 30 months of age.

A genetic link was found in the early phase of language acquisition at 15 to 18 months, when infants typically communicate with single words.

The ROBO2 gene is responsible for producing the ROBO2 protein, which is associated with language development. This protein also interacts with other ROBO proteins that have been linked to problems with reading and storing speech sounds.

The results provided further insight into a specific genetic region on chromosome three – implicated in learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

Dr Beate St Pourcin, lead researcher at the university, said: “This research helps us to better understand the genetic factors which may be involved in the early language development in healthy children, particularly at a time when children speak with single words only, and strengthens the link between ROBO proteins and a variety of linguistic skills in humans.”

With the study revealing that genetics play a significant part in language development, steps can therefore be taken at an early stage to help those who have dyslexia. One effective method involves using interactive assistive technologies, which can contribute towards improving the reading, speech and writing skills of children with this learning difficulty.

Happy  mother talking with  baby boy
Happy mother talking with baby boy

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