A team headed by Dr. Nadine Gaab of Children's Hospital in Boston looked at 36 five year old "pre-readers" who had a family history of dyslexia and compared them to a control group without such family history, matched for age, socioeconomic status, and IQ scores. Neuroscientists have long known that there is a genetic component to dyslexia, so the children studied could be expected to have a higher than usual risk for dyslexia.
The researchers used functional MRI studies to look at brain activity during phonological processing (involving such language tasks as deciding whether two words sound alike) which did not involve reading. They found that the group of children at risk for dyslexia showed reduced brain activation in the same areas of the brain that are impacted in older children and adults with dyslexia.
The researchers note that their results suggest that the differences in how individual brains work with language skills are not a result of reading failure, but are present before literacy acquisition starts. They caution that their study sample is small, and that more work needs to be done in this area.
What does this mean for young children? Most children with dyslexia are not diagnosed until they encounter reading difficulties in school, often in third grade or beyond. There are a number of effective programs to help these children read, but interventions work better the sooner they are begun.
As Dr. Gaab noted in an interview with Reuters, "Often, by the time they get a diagnosis, they usually have experienced three years of peers telling them they are stupid, parents telling them they are lazy. We know they have reduced self esteem. They are really struggling." She expressed the hope that this kind of research focused on young children will facilitate earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.
Photo used under Creative Commons by Clever Claire
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