Brain Imaging, Neurodiversity and the Future of Dyslexia Education

John Gabrieli, PhD


John Gabrieli

John Gabrieli is the Grover Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, a professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, director of the Athinoula A. Martinos Imaging Center at MIT, and director of MIT’s Integrated Learning Initiative. An expert on the brain mechanisms of human cognition, Dr. Gabrieli is deeply interested in dyslexia and, in particular, the use of brain imaging to identify children who are at risk for reading difficulties and to understand how reading instruction affects the brain.

Dr. Gabrieli shares his thoughts on brain imaging, neurodiversity, and collaborating with Carroll School.

I’ve had the chance to talk to many Carroll alumni, parents, and students. One after another they have said what a life-transforming experience it was to go to Carroll. It's been an honor to collaborate over the last six years with the school and its families.

Learning to read is, perhaps, the most spectacular step in education. We know that children with dyslexia are born with all kinds of strengths and that they become adults with all kinds of wondrous achievements. However, modern society has created a system where without a fundamental reading ability, everything in school, everything in post-secondary education, and everything in the careers that follow, becomes a burden.

The early experience of seeing yourself as an empowered learner or someone for whom school is frustrating or irrelevant is a critical moment in a young person’s growth. Once a child develops a feeling about themselves, their education, and their capacities - it’s difficult to change it. This is why so many of us are passionate about early identification, catching children early before they fail so we can give them the support they need.

Scientists have always assumed that any form of education or learning causes a change in the brain. In the late 1980s and 1990s brain imaging became systematic enough to be able to look at the brain of a child or adult who struggles to read and compare it to the brain of someone who doesn’t and actually see the structural and functional differences. The ability of brain imaging to visualize and quantify changes in brain structure and function - what we call neuroplasticity - shows that everyone can be helped with the right kind of instruction and change the way the brain functions to help a student learn how to read.

In collaboration with Children’s Hospital Boston and Dr. Nadine Gaab, we have found that children, even before entering school, have brain differences. These differences may have advantages, but in acquiring reading they encounter difficulty. In addition, we have been surprised to discover that the individuals with language learning difficulties who make the most progress in reading have changes in the right hemisphere of the brain. Usually, language and reading are left hemisphere activities. So, the expectation had been that effective intervention would encourage the left hemisphere of someone who struggles with reading to look more like the left hemisphere of the rest of the population. I was quite surprised that those who had the most success with interventions involved plasticity in the right hemisphere - a very different approach to reading and one which speaks to the necessity of education working with where the reader is.

We can’t make everyone learn the same way. Instead, it is important to ask, “What is the best way for this individual to learn?”

From research, we know the forms of instruction that focus on phonemic awareness and phonics are helpful for everyone and are especially important as an intervention for children who struggle to read. We also know that the earlier these interventions begin - Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade - the more effective they are. As children become older the challenge becomes reading fluency - how quickly children can work their way through paragraphs, pages, and entire texts.

Carroll’s leadership and faculty are so interested in exploiting the best evidence out there and using it to inform their instruction. This is a value that we share in our approach to education and science together. One of the things I’ve been really impressed by is their effort to address fluency. I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Dr. Eric Falke both at Carroll and at MIT. His interest in developing cognitive-based interventions to help students gain fluency - such an important research challenge - has been remarkable.

Eric and his team’s approach has been to look at cognitive training - skills usually outside of the realm of language-based reading difficulties. Carroll is working to help students improve how they process information and how much they can hold in their mind at once. The research is beginning to show that students are able to increase their fluency and capacity with structured cognitive intervention. I have been really impressed with Carroll for stepping beyond its success with phonemic based language learning and asking “What is the next thing we need to do?” to help its students go as far as they possibly can in their reading ability.

For as far into the future as I can see, brain imaging won’t replace good neuropsychological and educator evaluations. However, there is one place that brain imaging seems to have some promise in predicting outcomes and response to interventions. We know that in any given intervention approach, about half of the students will benefit much less than the others. Unfortunately, we aren’t yet able to know which ones will benefit before providing the intervention. Therefore the hope is that through brain imaging, we will be able to predict what intervention will have the most efficacy for each child.

Once we understand more about those who don’t respond, I hope that this will inspire us to use alternative educational interventions developed by Carroll and other outstanding institutions. I deeply appreciate that Carroll is very thoughtful about its capacity to reach a larger number of children and their commitment to using their unique skills, talent, and experience to disseminate knowledge. I think it’s a fantastic outreach of Carroll’s mission to share its expertise with teachers and schools around the world.

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