Researchers at the University College London have highlighted how the brain copes in language-impaired kids, by finding that a system responsible for processing grammar in the brain is damaged in some children with specific language impairment (SLI), but that these children compensate with a different brain area.
So far, it has not been found whether these children usually struggle to process language, or whether they have particular problems with grammar.
The research team said that their findings reveal the latter for a sub-group (G-SLI), and suggest that educational methods that improve these compensatory mechanisms may help such children overcome their difficulties.
In the study electrophysiological brain measurements of children with SLI showed normal responses for a variety of language tasks, but a specific deficit in brain circuitry involved in grammatical processing.
Researchers also found that the G-SLI children appeared to be partially compensating by using neural circuitry linked to vocabulary/word meaning or world knowledge (semantic processing).
Professor Heather van der Lely, Director of the UCL Centre for Developmental Language Disorders & Cognitive Neuroscience, said: "Specific language impairment is not as well known as autism, yet the disorder affects seven times as many children, and prevents them reaching their potential.
"We have discovered that a number of these children have specific problems with grammar, reflected in our measurements of a circuit in the brain which appears to be uniquely involved in grammar. G-SLI children with a deficit here appear to be compensating by harnessing another brain area involved in general word processing. Not only does this offer an intriguing insight into how such children may be coping with language, but it suggests a new way is needed to help them to overcome their difficulties in broader education.
"Government departments are starting to recognise the problem, but we need more resources. Our results suggest that enhanced general language teaching is unlikely to help - these children need focussed and specialised help. It is not a question of giving these children more of the same, but re-directing them to use the skills they do have to understand and communicate. Surprisingly, only a handful of experts in the world are conducting brain research into children with SLI," she added.
The study is published online in the journal PLoS ONE.