Phonological Training Changes Brain Activation in Dyslexic Children

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Note: Online Universities has included me in their list of top 50 female science bloggers. It’s not actually for this blog, but for my Brain Science and Creative Writing blog. Anyways, check out the list if you get a chance. There are lot of interesting bloggers.

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We’ve looked at the neuroscience of dyslexia and how the dyslexic brain processes words. Our ultimate goal, however, is treatment. Therefore, we’d like to see whether reading interventions cause brain changes in reading-impaired children. In a 2004 paper in Biological Psychiatry, Shaywitz and colleagues investigated this question.

The study focused on kids aged 6-9, divided into three groups. The experimental group consisted of reading-disabled students who went through an eight month experimental intervention that focused on  phonology: letter-sound associations, combining sounds, etc.. Another group of reading-impaired children were put in community intervention control group that participated in a variety of reading interventions, including remedial reading and tutoring. However, there was no specific focus on phonology. A third group, community control, consisted of normal reading children.*

All groups improved in their reading measures after 8 months (not surprising, since they continued to attend school). The experimental group showed more improvement than the community intervention group in one reading measure.

Shaywitz and colleagues were interested in brain differences before and after intervention. They scanned the kids pre/post intervention in a letter identification task.** Their main analysis was a second order comparion. They first determined the pre/post intervention changes within each group. Then they compared the changes between groups.

Compared to the community intervention control, both the experimental intervention and normal-reading control group showed a greater increase in left inferior frontal gyrus (often involved in phonological processing) activation. The experimental intervention group showed more increase in left middle temporal gyrus activation compared to the community intervention group.

In addition to comparing pre/post intervention differences between groups, Shaywitz also scanned the experimental group a year after finishing the intervention. The group showed continued increases in several left hemisphere areas, including left inferior frontal, superior temporal, and left occipitotemporal regions***. Also, they showed a decrease in right MTG and right caudate activation. This falls in line with the increase in left lateralization we saw in Turkeltaub 2003.

What’s the take home message? This study shows us that phonological intervention results in measurable brain changes in the left inferior frontal gyrus, a phonological region. This is encouraging. However, how does this actually impact reading performance? The experimental group only performed significantly better than the community intervention group in one reading measure, although it looks like they performed slightly better (but not statistically significant) in other measures. So there is a hint that phonological interventions might be more valuable than other interventions, but we’d have to get more data on this.

The study also shows that brain regions in the experimental group continue to develop during the year after the intervention. When did these changes start – during intervention or afterwards? It's hard to tell because they don't report the changes in the experimental intervention group right after intervention. They only report on the difference in changes between groups.

Also are these changes jumpstarted by the intervention, or would they have occurred anyway? Unfortunately, we can’t answer that question either. While the authors had hoped to also scan the two other groups a year afterwards, they were unable to.

Anyways, it's kinda cool to see brain differences as a result of training. It will be interesting to see in future studies what is going on in more detail.

*Children from the EI group were from Syracuse, NY, while the other two groups were recruited from New Haven.
**The kids heard a letter name and had to choose the correct letter from two options. This task was compared against baseline of hearing tone and specifying position of asterisk.
***LIFG, STG, left OT, left lingual, and left inferior occipital

Shaywitz BA, Shaywitz SE, Blachman BA, Pugh KR, Fulbright RK, Skudlarski P, Mencl WE, Constable RT, Holahan JM, Marchione KE, Fletcher JM, Lyon GR, & Gore JC (2004). Development of left occipitotemporal systems for skilled reading in children after a phonologically- based intervention. Biological psychiatry, 55 (9), 926-33 PMID: 15110736


Marc September 24, 2010 at 7:26 AM  

informative and well thought out review. Would love to see same analysis of vestibular-cerebellar research and interventions. it would be most interesting and helpful for our type of intervention. Thanks

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