Dyslexia: the Writing is on the Wall—From Birth

dyslexic from birth smallMost of us with dyslexia were diagnosed after several failure-filled, white-knuckled, angst-ridden years in school, or even as late as adulthood. Diagnosis at any age is a good thing: it allows us to finally understand our experience and educate ourselves on coping strategies. But it looks as if future generations may not have to suffer the extensive stress, crippling academic lag, and self-esteem issues we did. Boston Children’s Hospital Laboratory of Cognitive Science is out to change things.

Nadine Gaab, PhD, and lab members Nicolas Langer, PhD, and Barbara Peysakhovich have found that the signs of dyslexia are present as early as infancy. In 2012, the Gaab Lab showed that pre-readers with a family history of dyslexia (average age, 5½) have differences in the left hemisphere of their brains on magnetic resonance image (MRI).

“The first day they step in a kindergarten classroom, they are already less well equipped to learn to read,” Gaab says.

Some researchers postulate that kids had that difference because of dyslexic parents, and poor learning environments at home. But what if the brain difference was caused by nature, not nurture? To get to the bottom of that question, Gaab and her team performed MRI scans on 14 infants from dyslexic family histories, and 18 same-age infants without dyslexic family history. All the infants were only 18 months old.

The MRI scan utilized an advanced technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). DTI measures the flow of water molecules along the brain’s fiber tracts, and gives a good indication of fiber structure, orientation, and its impact on how well information is flowing in the brain.

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The arcuate fasciculus in a child with a family history of dyslexia (L) versus no family history (R), as seen on DTI (attribution footnoted)

The findings, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, discovered alterations in a particular structure called the arcuate fasciculus, a bundle of fibers that connect the posterior cortex, which is involved in mapping sounds and word/letter recognition, with the frontal cortex, which integrates and comprehends this information.

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Detailed segmentation of the images revealed that fibers in certain areas of the arcuate fasciculus, shown above as red bands, were consistently less organized. (Attribution footnoted)

Historically, people who have suffered damage to the arcuate fasciculus have problems with expressive and receptive language and with phonological processing — the ability to manipulate and understand the sounds of a language, a critical part of learning to read. In infants with familial dyslexia, inherited genes may interfere with the development of the arcuate fasciculus before birth, says Gaab, impairing its structural integrity.

“The street could be full of potholes, or it could be the street is narrow or has a really crappy surface, or there might be a lot of intersections where you have to stop,” she says, describing how an individual’s processing could be impacted by these structural changes.

“We hope this study will help show that kids should get interventions before kindergarten,” says Gaab. “We’re not saying you should scan every kindergartener, but if you have a strong family history, you could potentially have a five-minute DTI scan to see if you are at risk.”

As I have often discussed in this venue, the earlier the intervention, the better. Intervention from toddlerhood may have never seemed possible in the past, but these important findings offer parents the opportunity to get their kids off to the best possible educational start in life. It truly is a good time to be alive.

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  1. Interesting article. I do have to wonder about something though. If roughly 1 in 4 people have a dyslexic brain, then maybe we need to change our view from intervening to expanding the way we teach to the overall population of children. Then we wouldn’t even need scans. I find it sad that a kindergartner would already be labeled when entering school. I lucked out and went to a school that taught everyone using multi-sensory techniques. I knew that spelling and reading were not the easiest for me but I never felt out of place. However, my children went to traditional public school and they were immediately labeled and treated as if they had a disease. I hope someday we are able to realize that all people learn in different ways.

    1. Don M. Winn says:

      Thank you for commenting! I’m grateful to hear your rare experience as a child in a multi-sensory learning environment. As your own children discovered, not all are so blessed. You make an excellent point, “we need to change our view from intervening to expanding the way we teach to the overall population of children”. The more we keep the conversation going and raise awareness, the greater the chances of that becoming reality.
      Kind regards,

  2. Lady Yak says:

    Perhaps it is time to recognise that dyslexia is NOT a disability and sheer arrogance to believe that all brains should be wired in the same way. I have seen through QEEG inside my dyslexic child’s head and it is simply processing differently. My child’s diagnosis has come at age 18 and I am incensed at the way educators generally view dyslexia. Thank goodness for the more insightful likes of Dyslexic Advantage! Wouldn’t it be fun if every lesson, every day, schools required all children to make 3 dimensional models, or draw their homework? or maybe infer conclusions about their science homework based on their trip to a fashion factor? Who would shine then?
    Here’s to home educators the world over who devote their energies to encouraging the best out of their children rather than wasting their time with a Sociopathically engineered schooling system which supports bullying, low self esteem and compliance over talent, creativity and values!
    Good luck, must feel like being a goat butting one’s head against a military tank.

    1. Don M. Winn says:

      True. This ol’ Billy Goat is out to give the tank a run for its money. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. D M Day says:

    Intriguing stuff. Would be interesting to know if there are any signs of dyscalculia that would show on a scan. I wasn’t diagnosed during school, and have never met another person with it, in real life, so completely unaware of what extra support, if any, I would have got. There was certainly never any mention of the possibility that it was that causing problems, I was just called lazy. From what I saw of dyslexia at my school (in the UK) it was very misunderstood and the kids with it didn’t get the help they needed. I know of at least one person I went to school with where it was missed altogether.

    1. Don M. Winn says:

      That’s a very good question, but one I don’t know the answer for. Since slightly different areas of the brain are responsible for decoding numbers rather than language, I would imagine it’s a separate field of study.
      Though you didn’t get the support you needed as a child, I am pleased that you have found my blog; there are many tips here in the archives on how to structure life around a dyslexic brain, and ways it can even be a strength.
      Thanks for reading, all the best to you!

  4. Catherine Dipple says:

    In the UK diagnosis is available if you are rich. Gaining help at school is almost impossible. So we need governments to pay for dyslexic teaching for problems that can be seen regardless of diagnosis. Generations are being insulted and left to cope alone.

    1. Don M. Winn says:

      Unfortunately Catherine, money talks louder than any other voice in every country. And those with less have to advocate vigorously for their own needs.
      Perhaps I’m way off base, but to me it seems that the best way I can serve my young readers, their parents, and educators is by raising awareness, offering tips for coping strategies, teaching strategies, and communication styles that will make a difference for any who choose to implement them, regardless of circumstances. I’ve lived a long time, and one thing experience has taught is that if people in pain or need wait for the government to take care of them, they’ll be hurting a long time.
      Kind regards, Don

  5. Jenni says:

    I am a public school Reading Specialist. I often cringe when I read the comments above. As recently as a few years ago, you really had to hunt to find information about dyslexia…and even then, it was mostly about the causes and symptoms. I have had my specialist license for 9 years, and I don’t recall dyslexia coming up at all during my program. I received my specialist degree without any idea how to help dyslexic students! I am incredibly passionate and committed to my readers as are the legions of teachers I have worked with over the past 25 years. I really want people to understand that what is often perceived as apathy or indifference to dyslexia is merely a lack of good, solid education and training. It just wasn’t readily available until recently. With all of the new research finally reaching schools of education and classroom teachers, we are working furiously to educate ourselves and advocate for training.Here is what well-meaning parents and dyslexia advocates need to understand: rather than being critical of public schools, help those teachers advocate for the funds to send all teachers to training. Public school budgets here in Wisconsin and many other states have been gutted in recent years. The IMSE training for five days costs over a thousand dollars. The multisensory materials one needs to teach all of phonemes/graphemes are not cheap when you are presenting a book, an object, a blending board, sand, etc…for each sound that you introduce. We recently sent a teacher from each grade level for training, and the two reading specialists we have are both trained. We are placing our diagnosed and suspected dyslexics into those classrooms next year where they will be receiving multi-sensory education. We have been turning readers around…and it is about time! But we cannot do it without proper funding. I am hoping at some point that we will all be trained and can move toward multi-sensory education and systematic phonics instruction for all children. I understand the frustration, but I also am asking all of the Dyslexia advocates, parents, and even dyslexic students who had to wait years before finally getting what they need to learn to read to do your due diligence in finding out what you can do to help public schools receive the funds they need…and we are talking a BIG price tag here, to raise awareness, diagnose, and instruct our dyslexic students the minute they walk through our doors.

    1. Don M. Winn says:

      Thanks so much Jenni for your thoughtful comment. You make some excellent points. The funding and its allotments are within the power of each school board, and that’s where parents need to be visible. Thank you for being a caring and diligent educator! Keep up the good work.
      Kind regards

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