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Children's Reading Ability Can be Predicted by Brain Scans: Study

Update Date: Oct 12, 2012 09:38 AM EDT

A new study can identify the neural structures associated with poor reading skills in young children and could be a helpful early warning system for struggling students.

If a 7-year-old is breezing through the "Harry Potter" books, studies indicate that he or she will be a strong reader later in life. Conversely, if a 7-year-old is struggling with "The Cat in the Hat," that child will most likely struggle with reading going forward, Medical Xpress reports.

The new research from Stanford has revealed that the neural differences between these two children can be identified with the help of brain scans and could one day lead to an early warning system for struggling students.

For the research, the scientists recruited 39 children to participate in the study and scanned their brain anatomy every year for three years continuously.

Also, the students were given standardized tests for their cognitive, language and reading skills.

It was found that every time a child gave the test, the rate of development (measured by fractional anisotropy, or FA) in the white matter regions of the brain, which are associated with reading, could accurately predict their test scores.

Specifically, children with above-average reading skills exhibit an FA value in two types of nerve bundles - the left hemisphere arcuate fasciculus (FA) and the left hemisphere inferior longitudinal fasciculus - that is initially low, but increases over time, the report said.

Children with lower reading skills initially have a high FA, but it declines over time.

There have been studies conducted previously which have shown that a child's reading skill at 7 years of age can accurately predict his/her reading skills 10 years down the line.

"By the time kids reach elementary school, we're not great at finding ways of helping them catch up," said Jason D. Yeatman, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Stanford and the lead author on the study.

But then, the good news is that with the help of early detection, it can be determined as to which students are at risk. Our brain in the initial years of our life is plastic, FA values can be affected by genes, environment and experiences.

"Once we have an accurate model relating the maturation of the brain's reading circuitry to children's acquisition of reading skills, and once we understand which factors are beneficial, I really think it will be possible to develop early intervention protocols for children who are poor readers, and tailor individualized lesson plans to emphasize good development," Yeatman said. "Over the next five to 10 years, that's what we're really hoping to do."

The research was published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

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