Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development
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Neuroscience of Reading Disabilities in Children
Section Editor:
Christian Beaulieu, Ph.D. (christian.beaulieu@ualberta.ca)
Professor, Scientific Director, Department of Biomedical Engineering
University of Alberta
Printable Version:
(requires Acrobat Reader, available for free from Adobe)
Key Messages
What do we know?
Within the brain, there are several regions that are related to the ability to read. Researchers have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to visualize these areas. MRI technology has been identified as a beneficial tool for research because it is:
1.    safe;
2.    straightforward for use with children (children are only required to lie still for a minimal amount of time); and
3.    effective for identifying brain structure differences.
The brain is made up of a network of connected “wires” and “computers” that serve different functions. Complex cognitive tasks, such as reading, often require the participation and coordination of multiple systems. MRI technology has been used to identify where problems are potentially located within these systems. For children with reading disabilities, some differences in brain structure and specific brain regions have been identified.
New research comparing children with dyslexia and typically developing readers has indicated that there is substantially more brain activity in specific brain regions for typically developing readers. In order to compensate for the lack of regional brain activity, readers with dyslexia have learned to make use of an alternate brain system, which primarily uses memory to function. Specific intervention, targeted at increasing and improving brain activity in the deficient areas, demonstrated improved brain activation patterns in all areas contributing to reading. This improvement fostered activity patterns similar to those of typically reading children.
Reading disabilities are sometimes referred to as developmental dyslexia. There is a known genetic component to reading disabilities, meaning that they run in families. The specific genes that contribute to reading disabilities have yet to have been identified, although several have been identified as potential contributors. Common genetic factors are known to contribute both to reading disabilities and to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
One theory about the cause of reading disabilities involves the development of specific brain regions during pregnancy. Because of differences in regional brain development, the organization of cells within the brain becomes disrupted. Brain studies involving reading disabilities demonstrate two types of cell organization abnormalities, known as ectopias and dysplasias, in which certain types of cells develop in the wrong locations in the brain. Brain cell organization abnormalities may help us to better understand reading disabilities as they occur early on in development.
What can be done?
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