Brain scans may predict reading disabilities, according to new research

Language-based reading disabilities are a very real issue for many Americans. In fact, according to the Regents of the University of Michigan, experts estimate that about 5 to 10 percent of the U.S. population has dyslexia, though that number could be as high as 17 percent. Because dyslexia is so prevalent, researchers have been working to find ways to detect it in children before they start showing signs in school. In the past, doctors have monitored behavior or administered IQ tests to kids in hopes of predicting future reading troubles. However, these methods weren't always accurate. A new study by the University of California, San Francisco, may have found another way to predict dyslexia and other reading problems: brain scans.

White matter and reading ability
White matter is pale brain tissue that exists in the brain and the spinal cord. It's comprised mostly of nerve fibers and their insulating myelin sheaths, and is important in the development of reading and other abilities. According to BioMed Central, white matter helps the brain transmit electrical impulses faster. As children grow and develop, the amount of white matter their brains have increases. By monitoring the development of that matter, theoretically, researchers can predict how well a child will read later in life (by the time they start learning the skill).

"We show that white matter development during a critical period in a child's life, when they start school and learn to read for the very first time, predicts how well the child ends up reading," Fumiko Hoeft, MD, PhD, senior author and an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at UCSF, and member of the UCSF Dyslexia Center, said in a statement. 

Hoeft also noted that scanning children's brains for white matter was significantly more effective at predicting reading ability than behavioral observations and IQ scores. 

Why predict difficulty?
This study could impact education. Once parents are aware their child may develop reading difficulties, they can take action. Students may work with a specialized tutor and teachers will know what attention to give the student. Furthermore, knowing a child may have dyslexia can prevent uncomfortable situations. Many students with the disorder feel embarrassed that they can't read as well as their peers. They may also incorrectly believe they aren't smart. Identifying dyslexia early on will give parents and teachers a chance to build students up. This is made more important by the fact that, according to The New York Times, 20 percent of students with disabilities drop out of high school.

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