Diana Hinds reports on new research, which could help to explain dyslexia
THE DYSLEXIA DEBATE
The definition of dyslexia is again under scrutiny. Many in the field now believe that the term is over-used, and a provocatively-titled Channel 4 programme The Dyslexia Myth, shown in September, argued that children labelled "dyslexic" should not be treated differently from any other poor readers.
But dyslexia specialists do agree on some important points. As Professor Margaret Snowling at the University of York says, there is "a large body of scientific evidence showing that dyslexia is a neuro-development disorder with a genetic basis". It is a disorder characterised by problems with phonological processing (that is, making sense of the system of sounds in a language) which can make reading and spelling difficult even for bright children.
Specialists agree that early intervention can have positive effects on children's reading ability and prevent the downward spiral of underachievement.
Scientists at the Yale School of Medicine claimed in October to have discovered a gene for dyslexia, which they argue could be responsible for up to one in five cases of the condition. Identifying this gene, they say, could pave the way for the development of earlier tests.
Meanwhile, in Cambridge, researchers at the university's centre for neuroscience in education have embarked on a five-year study using brain imaging technology to try to understand the brain bases of dyslexia and dyscalculia. A successful outcome, according to Usha Goswami, director, could lead to establishing an early "marker" for these conditions, which would be detectable in a very young child by means of a brain scan.
LINKING NEUROSCIENCE AND EDUCATION
The Cambridge centre for neuroscience in education, based in the faculty of education, is the first in the world, says Professor Goswami, to be situated within a university education department and its aim is to foster dialogue between scientists and teachers.
An inaugural conference on special education and neuroscience, when the centre officially opened this summer, attracted more than 200 teachers.
Special needs, says Professor Goswami, is the area where neuroscience can make a contribution quickly (and where research funding is most likely to be forthcoming). "But this type of research is slow and incremental and we are looking five to ten years ahead."
The centre's new literacy project, funded by the Medical Research Council, is exploring the idea that dyslexic children have trouble processing the sound pattern of words because their brains are insensitive to the rhythmic aspects of auditory signals. The research involves tracking brain responses to different rhythmic sounds through specially-designed computer games in school and brain imaging technology in the centre to see how responses differ between children and how far these differences are linked to differences in sound awareness and reading ability.
The EEG brain imaging technique uses hi-tech equipment to record electrical changes in brain activity via electrodes placed on the scalp, giving a picture of what the brain is doing in response to environmental input. The advantage of this technique, says Professor Goswami, is that the child does not have to attend to the stimuli for meaningful recordings to be made.
Over five years, the project will track 60 dyslexic children of at least average intelligence from the age of seven with a control group of 60.
Prior research includes comparisons with French and Hungarian dyslexic children, and the project will extend to Greek, Japanese and Chinese.
Earlier research at the centre has suggested that there is a link in dyslexic children between poor rhythmic response and poor reading ability.
What the dyslexic experiences, Professor Goswami says, is similar to "listening to a non-native speaker speaking your language with the stresses in the wrong place".
On the basis of this, she says that it is important for teachers to use not only phonics with young children, but "broad-based approaches to language, such as clapping along to syllable patterns in nursery rhymes and making large movements to language".
Dr Jenny Thomson, research fellow at the Cambridge faculty of education, is working on a smaller-scale project on auditory processing and rhythmic skills, involving 25 dyslexic children. When she reports on her research in January, she hopes her findings will lead to the development of computer-based remedial programmes that could be supervised by teachers or parents, which would give dyslexic children much-needed, and enjoyable, practice in building phonological awareness by responding to rhythm.
Brain imaging technology also has potential benefits for understanding numeracy, and the second main focus of current research at the centre for neuroscience in education is dyscalculia. As Dr Denes Szucs, a lecturer in the education faculty, explains, there are thought to be three different neural regions involved in mathematical development; the aim of a new research project, with funding from Hungary, is to examine how the parietal lobe, which gives a basic sense of number, links with the temporal lobe, where calculation skills are learned. In children with dyscalculia it is possible that these links never form, because one or both of the neural systems are impaired.
Teachers are going to have to wait years for findings to emerge from neuroscience, says Professor Goswami. Meanwhile, she advises they adopt "healthy scepticism" to educational programmes and applications that purport to be about the brain. "Anything with the word 'neuro' in it sounds like science, but it may not be backed up by rigorous studies. Always ask, 'Where's the evidence?' and 'Has it been peer reviewed?'"
But in the Cambridge area, the university's research programmes have spin-off benefits for teachers. Earlier this year, in a joint initiative with Cambridge education authority, specialists from the faculty of education and the department of developmental psychiatry teamed up to provide a multi- disciplinary 60-hour course over two terms for teachers involved with special needs. "It's an opportunity for teachers to learn about cutting-edge research and to hear from people outside their discipline," says Dr Lani Florian, senior lecturer in special education.
"It's also important for researchers to learn from teachers, to understand the problems in schools and to design relevant studies. The opportunity for collaborative work through a course like this is fantastic."
Vivien Millest talks about her son, Matt, who is taking part in research at the Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience in Education
'Matt is nearly ten and we've known since he was four that he was dyslexic, partly because he has a sister who had been identified as dyslexic. He made progress with spoken language but began having problems when he started formal education. His reception teacher was sensitive to this and said Matt wasn't making the expected progress for a child of his ability.
He got extra tuition for two terms from the local dyslexia base, but it wasn't enough. He is several years behind at school and has been assessed by an educational psychologist as severely dyslexic. We're hoping we might be able to get some special help privately.
I heard about Jenny Thomson's research project in Cambridge needing volunteers through the North Herts Dyslexia Association. Matt is very interested in how dyslexics learn and he has really enjoyed taking part, especially seeing his own brain waves.
I hope they come up with something to exercise the part of the brain that will help dyslexics.
Dyslexic children need to do so much over-learning and it would be good if there were a computer program where they could learn through play. A computer game is the way forward, especially for boys. It could be very successful.'