Dyslexic vs. Nonimpaired Readers: Differences in Brain Development

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Studies comparing normal reading and dyslexic children often take a snapshot approach, comparing brain function at specific ages. However, these studies don’t tell us how these differences fit into the developmental picture. Are dyslexics following the same developmental course as normal readers, just at a different rate? Or do dyslexic brains develop in a completely different way?

Instead of comparing activation at each age, Shaywitz and colleagues compared the way the two groups changed throughout development. They conducted a massive imaging study involving 113 dyslexic children (ages 7-18) and 119 nonimpaired children aged (7-17). The participants did two tasks: a line match task (Do ///\ and //// match?) and a nonword rhyme task (Do leat and kete rhyme?)

In all the imaging results, the authors looked at the rhyming> line match contrast*. (For an explanation of contrasts and subtraction logic in fMRI, see this post). Both groups had brain regions that changed in activation with age. However, the regions were different. In normal readers, the left anterior lateral occipital region (close to the visual word form area) became more active with age. In dyslexics, however, a more posterior region of the left occipitotemporal cortex became more active.

Developmental patterns in the front of the brain were also different. Normal readers showed an activation decrease in the right middle frontal/superior frontal region while dyslexic readers showed a decrease in the right superior frontal region.

The authors also looked at asymmetry. In normal readers (but not dyslexic), activity in the anterior lateral occipitotemporal region became increasingly asymmetric with age.

From these results, it appears that dyslexic readers aren’t just delayed versions of normal readers. Different regions are developing in each group, and the two groups are learning to use different brain regions to perform the same task. What does this mean? Different strategies? Compensatory processing? Hrmm…

Addendum: Careful readers might notice that there are some differences between these results and other papers I’ve discussed. Brown 2004 found an increase in left inferior frontal regions with age, but this paper only found it in dyslexic readers. Brown also found decreases in left extrastriate regions, while this group found increases. This could be due to the different tasks or subject variation.

*I’d be curious to see the correlations with age and task activations separately rather than just the rhyme>match contrast. It’d be interesting to see whether these correlations are due to changes in rhyming activation, line match, or both.

Shaywitz BA, Skudlarski P, Holahan JM, Marchione KE, Constable RT, Fulbright RK, Zelterman D, Lacadie C, & Shaywitz SE (2007). Age-related changes in reading systems of dyslexic children. Annals of neurology, 61 (4), 363-70 PMID: 17444510


Aloysius April 1, 2010 at 7:15 AM  


I have a general question. Given that we can map and know how normal and dyslexic differs in the areas of brain activation, then are we not any closer to developing brain activities that will enable anyone to induce brain activation that supports normal as well as peak functioning brains.

Marc September 24, 2010 at 7:28 AM  

Another great article/review/analysis. thoughtful and useful!

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