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'Rewired' brains help children read better

By Allison M. Heinrichs
Thursday, June 12, 2008

An intensive reading program conducted three years ago in 50 Allegheny County schools permanently "rewired" the brains of dyslexic children, Carnegie Mellon University researchers said Wednesday.

In the scientific journal Neuropsychologia, neuroscientist Marcel Just reported that brain scans of 25 fifth-graders who participated in the reading program managed by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit improved to near-normal activity in brain areas responsible for reading.

"I'm just thrilled," said Donna Durno, executive director of the intermediate unit, which serves all the public school districts in the county except Pittsburgh. "We're finding something that can help children to read better. ... Having the program so concretely defined as successful is really exciting."

Nearly 1,500 students participated in the $9.6 million Power4Kids Reading Initiative during the 2004-05 school year. Several nonprofits, including the Heinz Foundation, paid for the program, which involved 100 hours of reading instruction.

Just, the director of Carnegie Mellon's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, and his colleagues scanned the brains of a sample of those students. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in blood flow in the brain while the students read sentences and determined if they made sense.

Scans were done before the 100 hours of instruction, immediately after and one year later. At the end of the program, the children who were poor readers had brain activity nearly the same as children with similar IQs who didn't have reading problems.

Gains in brain activity persisted even a year after the program ended.

"You can think about this as education changing people's brains," Just said. "You could assess whether you're effectively teaching a child by how their brain activity changes."

Guinevere Eden, president-elect of the International Dyslexia Association and director of the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University Medical Center, said Just's study advances the work of dyslexia researchers by imaging the children's brain activity while asking them to comprehend entire sentences, rather than single words.

"This is ... a valuable addition to a series of studies," said Eden, an associate professor of pediatrics.

Just said his dream would be for schools that specialize in strengthening the skills of poor readers to have fMRI machines on site to monitor a child's progress.

Patricia Hardman, director of the Dyslexia Research Institute in Tallahassee, said that would be expensive, but useful.

"One of the key issues is if we can know initially, at the 4- or 5-year-old level, that a child is not learning and that the reason they're not learning has nothing to do with culture or IQ, but a difference in how their brain works," she said. "Then we could immediately give them the type of instruction that they need to overcome that."



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