+ Reading Remediation Rewires a Child’s Brain

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Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have uncovered the first evidence that intensive instruction to improve reading skills in children causes the brain to physically rewire itself. 

Timothy Keller and Marcel Just found that new white matter is created, which improves communication within the brain. 

Reporting in the journal Neuron, the researchers report that brain imaging of children within the ages of 8 and 10 showed that the quality of white matter — which is the brain tissue that carries signals between areas of grey matter (where information is processed) –improved substantially after the children received 100 hours of remedial training.

After the training, imaging indicated that the capability of the white matter to transmit signals efficiently had increased; and in addition,  the testing showed that the children could read better.

Says D. O. Hebb, Professor of Psychology and director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI), “Showing that it’s possible to rewired a brain’s white matter has important implications for treating reading disabilities and other developmental disorders, including autism.”

And Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, agrees:

We have known that behavioral training can enhance brain function.  The exciting breakthrough here is detecting changes in brain connectivity with behavioral treatment. 

This finding with reading deficits suggests an exciting new approach to be tested in the treatment of mental disorders, which increasingly appear to be due to problems in specific brain circuits.

The study by Keller and Just was designed to discover what it is that physically changes in the brains of poor readers who make the transition to good reading.

They scanned the brains of 72 children before and after they went through a six-month remedial instruction program.

Using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a new brain imaging technique that tracks water movement in order to reveal the microscopic structure of white matter, Keller and Just found a brain change that involved the white matter cabling that wires different parts of the brain together.

Keller is a CCBI research scientist and author of the first developmental study of compromised what matter in autism. 

“Water molecules that are inside nerve fibers tend to move or diffuse parallel to the nerve fibers,” he says.   “To track the nerve fibers, the scanner senses areas in which many water molecules are moving along in the same direction and produces a road-map of the brain’s wiring.”

Previous studies had shown that both children and adults with reading difficulty displayed areas of compromised white matter. 

This new study shows that 100 hours of intensive reading instruction improved cheldren’s reading skills and also increased the quality of the compromised white matter to normal levels.

More precisely, the DTI imaging illustrated that the consistency of water diffusion had increased in this region, indicating an improvement in the integrity of white matter tracts.

Says Just,

The improved integrity essentially increases communication bandwidth between the two brain areas that the white matter connects, by a factor of 10. 

This opens a new era of being able to see the brain wiring change when an effective instructional treatment is applied.  It lets us see educational interventions from a new perspective.

Directly Related to the Amount of Increase in Phonological Decoding Ability

Keller and Just also found that the amount of change in diffusion among the treated group was directly related to the amount of increase in phonological decoding ability.

The children who showed the most white matter change also showed the most improvement in reading ability — confirming the link between brain tissue alteration and reading progress.

According to additional analyses, the change resulted from a decrease in the movement of water perpendicular to the main axes of the underlying white matter fibers, a finding consistent with increased myelin content in the region.

The authors caution that further research will be necessary to uncover the precise mechanism for the change in white matter.

Some previous findings indicate a role for electrical activity alon axons in promoting the formation of myelin around them, providing a plausible physiological basis for intensive practice and instruction increasing the efficiency of communication among brain areas.

Just says

We’re excited about these results.  The indication that behavioral intervention can improve both cognitive performance and the microstructure of white matter tracts is a breakthrough for treating and understanding development problems.

source: http://www.sciencedaily.com article on December 9, 2009.  Journal Reference: Timothy A. Keller, Marcel Adam Just.  Altering Cortical Connectivity: Remediation-Induced Changes in the White Matter of Poor ReadersNeuron, 2009; 64 (5): 624-631 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2009.10.018  

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