Early Warning System For Struggling Young Readers
October 12, 2012

Reading Ability Can Be Measured Through Brain Scans

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

It is already known that if a 7-year-old is easily reading the "Harry Potter" books, he or she will be a strong reader later in life. It is also a given that if a 7-year-old is struggling with "The Cat in the Hat," that child will mostly likely struggle with reading from there on out.

A new study from Stanford University demonstrates that brain scans can identify the neural differences between the two readers. These scans might someday lead to an early warning system for struggling students.

The research team performed brain anatomy scans once a year for three years on 39 children. The students then took standardized tests to assess their cognitive, language and reading skills.

Measured by fractional anisotropy, or FA, the rate of development in the white matter regions of the brain accurately predicted the test scores of the children. These white matter areas are associated with reading.

The team found that children with above-average reading skills have low FA values in two types of nerve bundles initially - the left hemisphere arcuate fasciculus and the left hemisphere inferior longitudinal fasciculus — but it increases over time. Conversely, poor readers have high FA values initially, but it declines over time.

The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, may eventually influence reading lessons for pre-elementary children. Because previous studies have shown that a child's reading skills at age 7 can accurately predict reading skills 10 years down the road, interventions need to happen earlier.

"By the time kids reach elementary school, we're not great at finding ways of helping them catch up," said Jason D. Yeatman, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Stanford and the lead author on the study.

The good news is that early screening could make a difference, at an early age the brain is plastic, and genes, environment and experiences can affect the FA values.

"Once we have an accurate model relating the maturation of the brain's reading circuitry to children's acquisition of reading skills, and once we understand which factors are beneficial, I really think it will be possible to develop early intervention protocols for children who are poor readers, and tailor individualized lesson plans to emphasize good development," Yeatman said. "Over the next five to 10 years, that's what we're really hoping to do."