Fall 2013

Problem solver: Brain study looks at mysteries of dyslexia



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JONATHAN COHEN
Sarah Laszlo is studying brain activity to try to understand dyslexia.

The problem: Dyslexia is a common learning disorder that prevents children from learning to read fluently and with good comprehension. Many dyslexic children don’t do as well in school as they might otherwise, which limits their career opportunities. Some also encounter social problems.

The researcher: Neuroscientist Sarah Laszlo, assistant professor of psychology

The research: Laszlo wants to understand what’s going on in children’s brains when they’re reading. She has received a five-year, $400,763 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Early Career Development (CAREER) Program, the agency’s most prestigious award for young researchers. The funding will enable her to conduct a five-year brain-activity study of 150 children with and without dyslexia.

“The brain can reveal things that aren’t necessarily visible on the surface,” she says. “It can tell you things about what’s going wrong that you can’t find out by giving a kid a test or asking him to read out loud.”

The strategy: Rather than lumping all children with dyslexia into one group, as many previous brain-imaging studies have done, Laszlo’s project will help to establish types and degrees of the disorder. Her lab uses electroencephalography, or EEG, as a non-invasive way to measure the electrical signals sent between brain cells when they’re communicating with each other. Study participants — kids in kindergarten through fourth grade — wear a cap outfitted with special sensors while playing a computerized reading game.

These scans produce massive amounts of data: The cap’s 10 sensors collect readings 500 times per second for 45 minutes. That’s one reason that brain- activity studies are expensive and time-consuming. It’s also the reason that a study of just 150 children is the largest study of its kind.

–Rachel Coker