+ Reading Practice Strengthens Brain “Highways”

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A study detailed in the journal Neuron reports that intensive reading programs can produce measurable changes in the structure of a child’s brain.

The study also found that several different improved the integrity of fibers that carry information from one part of the brain to another, according to a PBS article by Jon Hamilton in December 2009.

According to Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, “That helped areas of the brain work together.” 

Coordination is important because reading involves many separate parts of the brain.

Some parts recognize letters.  Others apply knowledge about vocabulary and syntax.  And still others decide what it all means.  The brain relies on high-speed  “highways” that carry information back and forth to synchronize all these operations.

When those highways can’t handle the traffic, the brain can’t make sense of the text on a page or screen.  The researchers, Just and Timothy Keller, wondered whether that might be one of the reasons a lot of children struggle to read.

Using a special MRI, they looked at the brains of several dozen children between the ages of 8 to 12.  Some were poor readers and some had typical reading skills. 

 The scans allowed scientists to study the network of fibers that carries information around the brain.  That network is found in the brain’s white matter.

What they found was that children with poor reading skills had “lower structure quality” in the white matter than typical readers.  

The Study

During the following school year, the scientists enrolled some of the poor readers in programs that provided a total of 100 hours of intensive remedial instruction.  The children practiced reading words and sentences over and over again.

After they were finished, a second set of MRI scans showed that the training had changed “not just their reading ability but the tissues in their brain,” according to Just.  The integrity of their white matter improved, while the white matter of children in standard classes was unchanged.

And in addition, says Just, “The amount of improvement in the white matter in an individual was correlated with that individual’s improvement in his reading ability.”

These findings add to evidence that learning involves more than just the gray matter that was known to process and store information.

A researcher in the Child Health and Human Development group at the National Institutes of Health, Doug Fields, says that it is becoming clear that white matter is also critical for learning.  And this has led to a shift in the way many scientists view the brain.

Other studies have shown that white matter changes when people learn to juggle or play a musical instrument, according to Fields.  And white matter also seems to be involved in everything from psychiatric illness to mathematical ability to autism.  Says Fields:

“Really, the more we look, the more we find.”

sole source: NPR article by Jon Hamilton, December 9, 2009.   http://www.npr.org

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