reports from the British Association festival of science in Sheffield
LIFE for a dyslexic child is like
living in a foreign country, according to scientists who say the condition is the result of the failure of the brain to "automatically" learn routine tasks.
After a 12-year research project Sheffield University academics have traced the cause to an abnormality in the cerebellum - the complex structure at the back of the brain.
Their research has already produced a series of diagnostic tests which are being used by 3,000 schools. Dyslexia, or word blindness, is believed to affect around 4 per cent of the school population.
Researchers say it is important to identify dyslexia early so that alternative teaching methods can be used to reduce the chance that young children will become frustrated and disaffected at their lack of progress. A recent Channel 4 programme reported that up to half of the inmates of a young offenders' institution were undiagnosed dyslexics.
Professor Rod Nicholson and Dr Angela Fawcett focused on evidence suggesting that dyslexic children, even when reading well, are less fluent and need more time and effort to read than their same-age classmates. They tested the theory that dyslexic children have problems learning to do anything "automatically".
A series of experiments demonstrated that dyslexic children's ability to balance deteriorated significantly when they were asked to do something else at the same time.
"We have used the analogy of driving in a foreign country - one can do it, but it requires continual effort and is stressful and tiring over long periods," said Dr Nicholson, speaking at the British Association's festival of science in Sheffield.
"On our account, life for a dyslexic child is like always living in a foreign country." The pair used brain-scanning techniques to identify differences in function in the cerebellum - which is usually highly active in a range of skills, from speaking to keeping a list of words in memory.
Dyslexic children scored low marks in the clinical tests, while dyslexic adults showed only 10 per cent of the normal brain
activity both when carrying out a familiar task and learning a new one. The brains of dyslexics and non-dyslexics showed physical differences in the cerebellum.