Auckland research breakthrough throws light on dyslexia

By Simon Collins

Ground-breaking Auckland University research has found that people with dyslexia appear to be trying to read with a different side of their brains to other people.

The research breakthrough, which found that dyslexics try to read with the right side of their brains, may eventually help scientists to work out a way of helping them learn to read.

About 7 per cent of people have dyslexia, where they cannot identify words or letters or connect them to sounds or meanings, or miss out parts of words when they read.

The condition is not related to intelligence and has affected many famous people from Leonardo Da Vinci to Albert Einstein. It is believed to be inherited because it runs in families, affects more males than females and is more common among left-handers.

Auckland University psychologist Karen Waldie said overseas studies had found that the left side of the brain, which controls language in about 95 per cent of people, was not activated when people with dyslexia tried to read.

Using a new magnetic resonance imaging machine, she has found for the first time that reading produces an increased blood flow in the front right lobes of the brain in people with phonological dyslexia, the most common kind of dyslexia where people cannot associate letters with sounds.

"Our images are showing that these folks are reading with the completely opposite side of the brain, in the same area, where you might have more spatial or positional information being processed," she said.

"The implications are for diagnosis, and also for understanding the disorder because the Ministry of Education doesn't recognise it as a neurological disorder.

"We can now rule out some misconceptions about it. This is not because of poor education or laziness or behavioural problems or motivational or attention problems. We are looking at a brain which is atypical."

Until now, dyslexia has been regarded as incurable. But Dr Waldie said reading was only a recent development in human history and the new evidence showed that it was not always fixed to the same part of the brain.

"With speech, we have evolved over 50,000 years. That means our left hemisphere is really, really specialised for speech," she said.

"Reading is different. It's more flexible in the way the brain works. It tends to recruit other parts of the brain because reading is complex."

She said genetic studies had traced dyslexia to abnormalities in particular chromosomes. Other studies suggested that the condition developed in the later stages of fetal brain growth in the womb.

But her work suggested that the brain might be able to change later in life.

"I don't think there will be any magical treatment, but I think the brain might be more plastic than we originally thought," she said.

"We now know that the brain develops and grows over the whole lifespan. Before, we would say that by adolescence, that's it, there's no more development.

"So I think there is potential, once we understand the brain better, to help dyslexics."

Her work so far is based on a tiny sample - two people with dyslexia in Australia and five in Auckland.

She is looking for a further five dyslexics aged 18 to 38 who are willing to have their brains scanned by the machine while reading.

After that, she hopes to try similar experiments with young children to test whether they are born with atypical brain patterns or develop them as a result of their reading problems.

"It's always a bit more difficult working with children. You are asking them to be still in a scanner for 45 minutes. That is a big ask."

The Auckland manager of the Learning and Behaviour Charitable Trust, Jan Al Hadi, said the research would force the Government to recognise dyslexia is a malfunction in the brain and to fund it accordingly.

Famous dyslexics

* Keanu Reeves
* Cher
* Agatha Christie
* Winston Churchill
* Leonardo Da Vinci
* Andy Warhol
* Richard Branson
* Albert Einstein
* Muhammad Ali
* Whoopi Goldberg
* Pablo Picasso
* Walt Disney

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