Friday, 20 July 2007

Brain scan helps identify children likely to have reading problems

Psychologists in America report brain scanning could help identify those children who are at greatest risk of having later reading problems.

At the start and end of a school year, John Gabrieli and colleagues tested the phonological skills of 64 children (aged between 8 and 12 years) – that is, their ability to convert letters into sounds – a skill that is known to be key to effective reading. They did this by asking the children, all of whom had been identified as poor readers, to read nonsense words aloud.

Also at the start of the year, the researchers gave the children a comprehensive battery of traditional reading tests, plus a brain scan, during which they had to say whether words rhymed with each other.

Performance on the traditional behavioural reading tests predicted 65 per cent of the variance in the children's phonological skills at the year end, whereas patterns of activity revealed in the brain scans predicted 57 per cent of the variance. In particular, greater activation in the left temporal lobe and more right-frontal activation were both predictive of superior phonological skills.

So, used in isolation, the traditional tests beat the predictive power of the brain imaging. But the key finding is that using both the behavioural measures and brain scanning data together predicted 81 per cent of the variance in end-of-year phonological skills.

“The significantly greater predictive accuracy of the combined behavioural-neuroimaging model than either model alone shows that neuroimaging is measuring brain functions and structures relevant to reading that are not fully measured by their behavioural correlates in standardised testing,” the researchers said.

In the future, a combination of neuroimaging and behavioural measures could help target early, intensive reading interventions at those children who need it most, the researchers said.

Hoeft, F., Ueno, T., Reiss, A.L., Meyler, A., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., Glover, G.H., Keller, T.A., Kobayashi, N., Mazaika, P., Jo, B., Just, M.A. & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2007). Prediction of children's reading skills using behavioural, functional, and structural neuroimaging measures. Behavioural Neuroscience, In Press.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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