Dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects the ability to read and spell words, is the most common language-related learning disability. Somewhere around 15% of the population suffer from it. More bad news? Trouble with reading in children may be predetermined by the brain’s architecture.
But there’s also good news! According to University of Washington, as little as 8 weeks of specialized tutoring helps strengthen white matter connections in those with dyslexia, helping to improve reading performance. You see, white matter tissue properties are known to correlate with performance across domains ranging from reading to math, to executive function.
In the study, children with reading and spelling disorders received one-on-one instruction for four hours a day, five days a week, for eight weeks. They took a series of reading tests before and after the tutoring program and underwent four MRI scans and behavioural evaluation sessions at the beginning, middle and end of the eight-week period. A control group of children with a mixture of reading skill levels participated in the MRI and behavioural sessions but did not receive the reading intervention.
“The process of educating a child is physically changing the brain. We were able to detect changes in brain connections within just a few weeks. It’s underappreciated that teachers are brain engineers who help kids build new brain circuits for important academic skills like reading.”
The study focused on three areas of white matter — regions rich with neuronal connections, that link regions of the brain involved in language and vision. Specifically, they looked at the rate at which water diffuses within the white matter: A decline in the rate of diffusion indicates that additional tissue has formed, which allows information to be transmitted faster and easier.
After eight weeks, two of those three areas showed evidence of structural changes — a greater density of white matter and more organized “wiring.” That plasticity points to changes brought about by the environment, indicating that these regions are flexible structures. They reorganize in response to experiences children have while learning.
The analysis focused on the left arcuate fasciculus, which connects regions where language and sounds are processed; the left inferior longitudinal fasciculus, where visual inputs, such as letters on a page, are transmitted throughout the brain; and the posterior callosal connections, which link the two hemispheres of the brain – this is the area where subjects in the control group showed no changes in diffusion rates or structure between MRI measurements.
The callosal connections showed no changes between treatment and control groups, results that support past research suggesting that this structure, though relevant for reading acquisition, may already be mature and stable by age 7.
“Much of what we know about brain plasticity comes from research done in animals,” Yeatman said. “The beauty of educational interventions is that they provide a means to study fundamental questions about the link between childhood experiences, brain plasticity and learning, all while giving kids extra help in reading.”
Read the full study here.