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Monitoring White Matter in the Brain Key to Predicting Learning Abilities, Study Finds

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How can we predict that a children will develop a learning disability? A new study suggests using brain scans to monitor the growth of white matter in the brain can help identify potential learning issues early on.

Recently, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) examined 38 kindergarten students. As the children began learning to read, the researchers carried out brain scans which showed the development of each child’s white matter, the part of the brain critical to perceiving, thinking, and learning. The researchers then monitored how this white mattered changed over time.

Monitoring this development of white matter helped researchers identify differences between students who struggled with reading and learning and those who did not. It’s a discovery that has led Chelsea Myers, the study’s lead researcher, to suggest that experts focus more attention on monitoring the development of white matter in young learners.

“Examining developmental changes in the brain over a critical period of reading appears to be a unique sensitive measure of variation and may add insight to our understanding of reading development in ways that brain data from one time point, and behavioral and environmental measures, cannot,” Myers said.

“The hope is that understanding each child’s neurocognitive profiles will help educators provide targeted and personalized education and intervention, particularly in those with special needs.”

Myers and colleague Fumiko Hoeft note in their report — which was recently published by Psychological Science — that the finding could help in the early identification of dyslexia and other neurodevelopmental disorders. “Accumulation of research evidence such as ours may one day help us identify kids who might be at risk for dyslexia, rather than waiting for children to become poor readers and experience failure,” Hoeft added.

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