In a new brain imaging study of poor readers, researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that 100 hours of extra training showed similar brain activation in poor readers as that in skilled readers.
They said that 100 hours of remedial instruction- reading calisthenics, of sorts, aimed to shore up problem areas-not only improved the skills of struggling readers, but also changed the way their brains activated when they tried to comprehend written sentences.
The results of this study may also pave the way to a new era of neuro-education.
The researchers said that initially poor readers have less activation in the parietotemporal area of the brain, which is the region responsible for decoding the sounds of written language and assembling them into words and phrases that make up a sentence, unlike good readers. But, when remedial instruction is given, it increases the struggling readers' activation to near normal levels.
This is the first brain imaging study in which children were tested on the basis of their understanding of the meanings of sentences, and not just on their recognition of single words.
"This study demonstrates how the plasticity of the human brain can work for the benefit of remedial learning. We are at the beginning of a new era of neuro-education," says neuroscientist Marcel Just, director of Carnegie Mellon's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI), and senior author of the new study.
For the study, the poor readers were made to work in groups of three for an hour a day with a reading "personal trainer," a teacher specialized in administering a remedial reading program. During the training, they were made to do both word decoding exercises in which students were asked to recognize the word in its written form and tasks in using reading comprehension strategies.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to measure blood flow to all of the different parts of the brain while children were reading. It was found that the parietotemporal areas were significantly less activated among the poor readers as compared to those in the control group.
The sound-based representation that is constructed in the parietal areas is then processed for the meanings of the words and the structure of the sentence, activating other brain areas.
The sentences were fairly straightforward ones, which the children judged as being sensible or nonsense. Their accurate sensibility judgments ensured that they were actually processing the meaning of the sentences, and not just recognizing individual words.
However, the activation increases in the previously underactivating areas remained evident much after the intensive instruction was finished. When the children's brains were scanned one year after instruction, their neural gains were not only maintained but became more solidified.
"With the right kind of intensive instruction, the brain can begin to permanently rewire itself and overcome reading deficits, even if it can't entirely eliminate them," said Just.
The results may also initiate the use of marvels of brain plasticity for instructional purposes in "new" (for the brain) subject areas. Just said other skills that may be valuable as newer technologies (than written language) arise should also be amenable to neuroinstruction.
"Any kind of education is a matter of training the brain. When poor readers are learning to read, a particular brain area is not performing as well as it might, and remedial instruction helps to shape that area up. This finding shows that poor readers can be helped to develop buff brains. A similar approach should apply to other skills," said Just.
The study is currently available on the Web site of the journal Neuropsychologia.