May 26, 2017

When adults learn to read, the brain changes dramatically

Ellen F. O'Connell / Hazelton Standard-Speaker via AP

A new study in Science Advances found adults who learn to read have increased activity in parts of the brain previously thought unrelated to the task.

Researchers measured brain activity before and after teaching illiterate adult women how to read over a six-month period and found learning to read changed activity in the thalamus and brainstem, evolutionary "older" brain regions humans share with other mammals.

Why it matters: There are an estimated 44 million adults who are unable to read simple sentences and about one out of 10 Americans have dyslexia. The study provides further insight into possible causes for reading disorders like dyslexia.

The details: The scientists taught a group of 21 illiterate Hindi-speaking adults how to read Devanagari script for 6 months, comparing the changes in their brains before and after the tutelage, along with a sample of 9 illiterate adults who did not receive any teaching. Brain scans showed the expected increased function in the cortex after six months but also connectivity between the brainstem and the thalamus that help filter visual information in the brain.

What they're saying: "Interestingly, it seems that the more the signal timings between the two brain regions are aligned, the better the reading capabilities," the study's author Falk Huettig of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, told Scientific American. "It appears that these brain systems increasingly fine-tune their communication as learners become more and more proficient in reading."

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