Treatment helps dyslexics significantly improve reading, shows brain changes as children learn

May 23, 2000

A novel treatment for dyslexia not only helps children to significantly improve their reading skills but also shows that the brain changes as dyslexics learn, according to a study by an interdisciplinary team of University of Washington scientists.

The research, published in the current issue of the Journal of Neuroradiology, also provides new evidence that dyslexia is a treatable brain-based disorder, according to neurophysicist Todd Richards and neuropsychologist Virginia Berninger, who headed the UW research team. Dyslexia, which is a reading disorder and the most common learning disability, affects an estimated 5 percent to 15 percent of children. Contrary to popular myth, the hallmarks of the disorder are subtle deficits in oral language processing of the sounds of the language, not reversal of letters.

"We want to make it very clear that we didn't cure dyslexia, but we think we effectively treated it," said Berninger. "Because of differences in their brains, the boys in our study will need additional educational treatment if they are to continue developing their reading skills. There are no quick fixes or magic bullets for curing dyslexia."

Richards and Berninger said the new study is the first in a line of research that will explore the degree to which the brain affects ease of learning and, in turn, is affected by specific educational interventions. They expect this kind of research will build a foundation that educators can draw upon to improve the accountability of teaching practices.

"Some children learn to read easier than others, and unless there is real brain damage, the brain will change as children learn," said Berninger. Dyslexia is not brain damage. There are just differences in the wiring of the brain for those parts that are involved in reading. There is no such thing as a perfect brain. Any brain probably has structural anomalies. With appropriate instruction, dyslexic brains may become more efficient at processing the sounds of language. Because they are more efficient they use less brain area and metabolic energy."

Complete details about the intervention program -- a three-week reading and science workshop developed by Berninger -- will be published next fall in the journal Learning Disability Quarterly. The intervention draws on elements of existing treatments, putting them together in a novel way.

In the workshop the boys were taught to analyze sound in spoken words, to attach sounds to letters automatically and to use different strategies for translating written words into spoken words. The treatment was novel because it took advantage of the boys' talent and interest in science and technology. It linked reading instruction with a hands-on science workshop that used materials from Seattle's Pacific Science Center. The workshop is only one of a number of dyslexic treatments being developed at the UW.

The current study builds on previous UW research showing that there are chemical differences in brain function of dyslexic and non-dyslexic children during sound processing tasks.

Fifteen boys -- eight dyslexics and seven non-dyslexics -- were involved in the new study. The boys ranged in age from 10 to 13 years and the dyslexic and control groups were matched for age, IQ and head size, but not in reading skills. The controls were above average readers for their age and learned to read very easily. The dyslexics had delayed reading skills and were reading well below average for their age group. They also had a family history of multi-generational dyslexia.

Both groups underwent spectroscopic imaging at the beginning of the study. The dyslexic boys then entered the treatment program that was designed to improve their phonological abilities or skills in understanding and using the sounds of language. About a year after the first imaging session, the dyslexics' reading skills were tested and both groups were imaged again using the same tests to evaluate the long-term effect of the treatment.

Following treatment the dyslexics expended 1.8 times the energy to do the same sound-processing task as the controls, compared to about 4 times the energy before treatment. According to Richards the dyslexics and controls were not statistically different after treatment. Over this same period the dyslexics also made large strides in their reading ability, especially in sounding out new words.

"The relative gains they made compared to children of the same age were more than what would be expected for the time that passed between tests," added Berninger. They made significant gains in analyzing sounds needed to decode words and in sounding out unknown words. After the workshop all but one of the boys could read grade appropriate passages.

"This research offers a message of hope. We can see improvement in children's reading levels with this intervention even if there are preexisting brain differences that make learning difficult. "Parents of the boys in the study told us that children who didn't read independently before are now picking up books on their own and reading them."

The new results are part of a larger UW effort to understand the basis of dyslexia and develop treatments for the disorder. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development funds the research and the UWi's multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center. The center does not offer a summer treatment program to the general public. Treatment studies are only open to children of families participating in the dyslexia family genetics and brain imaging project.

Other members of the UW research team and co-authors of the study are David Corina, associate professor of psychology; Stephen Dager, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science; Robert Abbott, professor of educational psychology; Kenneth Maravilla, professor of radiology; and Ken Marro, a post-doctoral researcher in radiology. In addition, UW doctoral students Sandra Serafini and Keith Steury and radiology technician Denise Echelard, participated in the research.
For more information, contact:
Berninger at 206-616-6372
Richards at 206-598-6725

A copy of the paper is available at

University of Washington

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