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$9 million grant awarded to UH to study, treat learning disabilities

April 20, 2012
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a five-year, $9 million grant to the University of Houston's Texas Center for Learning Disabilities to conduct research on the causes and treatment of learning disabilities in children and adolescents. UH is one of four universities nationally to receive funding from the NIH for a learning disability research center.

The substantial number of today's adolescents struggling with weak literacy skills presents an urgent national concern, yet little is known about reading disabilities beyond the early elementary grades. This award enables UH to address this critical gap in knowledge by funding the continuation of the multidisciplinary research center at the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities and four new research projects involving older elementary school-aged children in fourth and fifth grades with reading problems.

"The Texas Center for Learning Disabilities, headed by Jack Fletcher in the department of psychology, successfully competed for a renewal of funding following an initial five-year run that was extremely successful," said David Francis, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of psychology and one of many collaborators on the project. "This new $9 million award will run over the next five years and highlights the significance of the work being directed at UH that is focused on understanding and treating learning disabilities."

Learning disabilities are disorders that affect the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements or direct attention. Although learning disabilities occur in very young children, the disorders are usually not recognized until the child reaches school age and can be lifelong conditions. It is crucial to recognize and treat these challenges as soon as possible to ensure long-term success in the education of the child.

"Learning disabilities are a major public health problem that affect the educational and social outcomes of children and adults," said Fletcher, also a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished Professor in the department of psychology and the principal investigator for the grant. "The goal of the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities is to bring together a wide range of experts across disciplines to research children with reading comprehension difficulties, understand the cause behind learning disabilities in the brain and improve on diagnosis, intervention and treatment."

In addition to researching the identification, intervention and treatment of learning disabilities, a unique component of the UH research includes neuroimaging of the brains of children to study the relationship of reading instruction and brain function and how the brain changes when children develop reading interventions.

Research from the first five years at the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities led to a new direction with the current research. Previous research focused on younger ages in first and second grade. In the new research studies, the focus is on fourth and fifth grade, Fletcher said.

"Researchers have made great progress in understanding how children learn to read text and how to help when they have difficulties," said Brett Miller, director of Reading, Writing and Related Learning Disabilities Programs in the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "But it's also important that we learn how individuals develop understanding of what they read, and so the new centers will focus on reading."

University of Houston

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