Researchers Find a Biological Marker For Dyslexia In Kids

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Detecting the reading disorder as early as possible may help more children to overcome reading and learning problems.

About one in 10 people suffer from dyslexia, the reading disability that does not impair thinking processes or  overall intelligence, but hampers the ability to process written language, often making it difficult to rhyme, determine the meaning of a sentence, and recognize words.

In the latest study, researchers from Northwestern University identified a biological process that could be responsible for the compromised reading. According to the study authors, there is a relationship between a person’s ability to read and how their brain encodes sounds.

The researchers, who reported their findings in the Journal of Neuroscience, recorded the automatic brain wave responses of 100 kids aged six to 13 as they heard speech sounds. The brains of the more adept readers encoded the sounds, or processed the speech into brain waves, in a more consistent way than those who struggled to read. The latter group tended to show more erratic and fluctuating patterns, which understandably meant that their brains were less able to consistently connect sounds with words. That in turn could interfere with their ability to read, since reading in part involves a virtual hearing of printed language. “Understanding the biological mechanisms of reading puts us in a better position to both understand how normal reading works and to ameliorate it where it goes awry,” study author Nina Kraus, a professor of neurobiology, physiology and communication at Northwestern University said in a statement.

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According to the researchers, people learn language skills by making meaningful associations between sounds and information. The most difficult sounds for the brain to encode are consonants, which are shorter and contain more complex sounds compared to vowels, which tend to have longer and simple intonations. More stable brain responses to these sounds can lead to easier interpretation of both aural and written words.

“[Some] kids are not making robust sound-to-meaning connections in language because of the way the nervous system is set up,” says Kraus. “The nervous system is responding inconsistently,” and that may set the stage for dyslexia.

The findings support other work that found that children with dyslexia show difference in brain MRI scans, even before they learn to read; the patterns could reflect differences in the way their brains process sounds.

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Finding such abnormal brain patterns may help parents and teachers to identify children who are likely to develop the reading disorder earlier, which is important since children can be trained to develop more consistent and stable sound processing. In fact, in previous research, Kraus and her colleagues showed that kids with trouble reading can use listening devices that transmit their teacher’s voice directly into their ears. Children wore these devices for a year and showed improved reading skills. Highlighting the most important sound—the teacher’s voice sounding out words—appeared to help the children better match sounds to words by minimizing extraneous sounds that could distract them.

Taken together the results of Kraus’ two studies provide hope for at least limiting some of the more severe learning problems that can come with dyslexia; if children are helped early enough with the proper training, reading could become as smooth and as natural as it is for those without the disorder.



This Dyslexia Study Commission was a smokesceen pacifier!!!!!

To date they haven't done a darn thing - never met!


As an undiagnosed (but always poked fun at myself) Dyslexic, who apparently breeds children with Dyslexia, Dypraxia, Dysgraphia and Dyscalcula I agree that having a Neurological Evaluation with full scope MRI would be the proof.  Yes it is expense and the industry will not pay. 

What is most disturbing is that this is not "Recognized in our Education System", only "Considered", which means nothing!  This study supports other research that states it is a neurological disability/disorder and it is INHUMANE to harm children by not red flagging the potential children with it.  Facts, children in grades 1-3 Learn to Read and in grades 4+ are reading to learn.  Children should know their multiplication charts and basic math by 3rd grade.  As Tripodell states, the GAP at that point is HUGE.  Then factor in Self-Esteem, all that the child misses out because they are attending pull-outs during the day to be taught with inadequate and NOT recognized peer science based methods of teaching to dyslexics. The children with ADD ontop of that (okay, most boys) and then factor in the Anxiety you give them.  I have written to people like Erin Brockovitch (because she is Dyslexic), Henry Winkler and many others....nobody 'has time' to listen. 

Legislation here in Rhode Island was not passed but they allowed a Study Commission, which means nothing - some of those Commissions never even meet!  Red Flag those flailing students with obvious issues.  Complexity we know is in the IQ scores and that they it can be sometimes hard to prove - then give that child a test for Dyslexia and give Early Intervention.  Of course the intervention must be science peer based and taught by a Certified Teacher such as Orton Gillingham or Wilson.  A pitiful few States have passed Legislation recognizing this Disability, although, it is on the List for Disabilities - it is NOT recognized.  Commissioners of Education refuse to see correlate the Math, Science and Reading are sub-par across the nation.  WHY, well we know why.  You have approximately 20% of the people with dyslexia (processing issues) that are currently in Public Schools.  I have tried color overlays, and many other things....but in that population its not a cookie cutter fix either and there many children that do benefit from 1 thing, but not the other. 

Where the hell is our President on this - he recognized Early education to be tantamount, but can't fund it either.  Gulp!

tripodell 1 Like

@sarena1964 Great post Sarena! Two of my three children have also been identified with Dyslexia/Language processing issues. We've been watching for it since day one because of the genetic component, so we got them identified as early as possible. Luckily, we have good early intervention programs in the town I live in.

From personal experience, we've been using Audiobooks early and often - mostly to incentivize  the struggles with early reading with an experience of books and storytelling they can love and enjoy. Also (Full disclosure, I work for an Amazon subsidiary that sells digital Audiobooks) Amazon has an Immersion Reading technology for Kindle Fire that enables word-by-word highlighting with professional narration (not robot voice) when you own the paired kindle and Audible titles. 
As a former teacher, its one of the best things I've seen come along for struggling readers in a very long time.  

tripodell 2 Like

Speaking as a dyslexic (Diagnosed 32 years ago at age 7), and a former teacher, The problem with language and dyslexia tends to be far more complex that the article would lead readers to believe.

Most of the research I've read in around brain scans and language processing state that dyslexics consistently process written language with a different part of the brain (Broca's area) than typical readers (the visual cortex).  Its a more recently evolved area of the brain that relates to processing language and sounds vs the visual cortex which is better at processing symbols.  Yes, it makes it harder to hear the difference between letter sounds (phonemes) or even close-sounding words, but it also causes you to "hear" things out of order, transpose (swap) letters and numbers along with a variety of other little tricks along the way. 

Its the reason why so many of use struggle not just with reading, but with math (the numbers keep moving around), spelling and grammar. School is very hard (at least until you learn tricks to adapt) and by then, there are major gaps in your knowledge from all the remedial time you spent learning how to read the "right" way. 

The dyslexic brain is just different. You can't fix it, nor should we try. The Neuroscience  research also shows we not only process information differently, but we also store it differently in more broadly distributed clusters of neurons (the memory cells). These finding support the fact that dyslexics are more likely (if they can endure/survive school) to be successful entrepreneurs , artists, scientists, designers and engineers. We tend to go into creative fields precisely because of the way we are 'wired'. We tend to make odd associations between ideas and get to new and interesting solutions faster - some of the most important discoveries, the most successful businesses and best leaders in modern history were dyslexic (or strongly suspected by historians of being so). 

Just slapping earbuds on a child and teaching them "louder" isn't going to solve the learning problem. From my perspective its like speaking slowly and loudly to someone who doesn't speak english - futile, and it makes both people seem stupid. The problem is how we teach these children.

Phonics isn't the only way to teach reading, wrote repetition isn't the only way to learn a language. There are better ways for different kind of learners. We didn't have the technology 30 years ago to make learning to read easier for me, but have it now - we should spend more time on learning how to fix our classroom, and less on how to fix our kids. 


@tripodell :  Neuroplasticity!  There are things you can change.  Check out Sally Shaywitz' book on Dyslexia.  She did functional MRIs on kids with dyslexia and on normal readers, which showed the differences between them in the parts of the brain used for reading.  Then she gave the dyslexic students 8 weeks of intensive tutoring using the Lindamood-Bell method (emphasis on phonemic awareness).  At the end, the functional MRI showed that the brains of the dyslexic students had changed to be more similar to the normal readers.

We were lucky in that our son was diagnosed early and, by chance, we chose tutoring at a clinic that used the Lindamood-Bell methodology.  Our son is now a normal reader.  It took a lot of effort and practice.  He still has difficulty spelling, but has improved tremendously.  His writing is not bad, although he will probably always need someone to help him edit for conventions.


The research does have value and is confirmation of sound encoding as a problem . But

"Finding such abnormal brain patterns may help parents and teachers to identify children who are likely to develop the reading disorder earlier," assumes MRI testing as a screening method is practical. 

Screening would have to be universal to uncover dyslexic children not known to be at risk or the result is just a really expensive way of confirming that children suspected of risk are indeed at risk. 

As mentioned , teacher to student communication devices actually seem to be effective in the classroom and I would  think  more cost efficient even if made available to all students in the earliest classrooms.  I suspect the dyslexic students would experience the benefit and be able to self identify the headphones as beneficial while the non dyslexics would report not much difference. Let the kids keep the headphones ( a modest cost ) and provide the teachers with the transmitters.  As schools start to provide Ipads or the equivalent I can see the cost dropping to close to zero with the proper AP and wi-fi .

Dyslexics are better than some might think at being able to express their problems and the effectiveness of interventions if they are only asked properly. 

My niche is visual dyslexia and I developed universal visual dyslexia filters. Many visual dyslexics go undiagnosed because no one asks if they have any visual problems seeing the words and they assume what they see is normal. I sell my See Right Dyslexia Glasses to those aware enough to describe their visual problems that make reading difficult but find that many children will reveal unsuspected problems if their parents just ask a few questions about their vision. My only claim is that the glasses remove described visual problems that make reading difficult. 

Back to screening for dyslexia . Rather than MRI as a screening tool , why not develop a program that scores a person's ability to discriminate between similar sounds directly.  Think about something like a hearing test only repeating the same base sound and then ask the test subject to raise their finger when it is different. Repeat with  different sounds as the base.  The test could probably be made into a Play Station Kinect disk or something similar to send home for testing.