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Buff Brains

Closing the Reading Gap


Just as exercise regimens help our muscles become stronger and perform better, Carnegie Mellon scientists say specialized workouts for the brain can boost cognitive skills.

A new study of local fifth-graders found that 100 hours of remedial instruction not only improved the skills of struggling readers but also changed the way their brains activated when they comprehended written sentences.

Researchers say poor readers initially have less activation than good readers in the parietotemporal area of the brain. That's the region responsible for decoding the sounds of written language and assembling them into words and phrases that make up a sentence.

However, remedial instruction increases the struggling readers' activation to nearly normal levels.

The poor readers worked in groups of three for an hour a day with a "personal trainer" — a teacher specialized in administering a remedial reading program. The training included both word-decoding exercises — in which students were asked to recognize the word in its written form — and tasks in using reading comprehension strategies.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Ann Meyler and Tim Keller — research fellows at Carnegie Mellon's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI) — measured blood flow to all of the different parts of the brain while study participants were reading to arrive at their results.

"This study demonstrates how the plasticity of the human brain can work for the benefit of remedial learning," said neuroscientist Marcel Just, director of the CCBI and senior author of the new study currently available on the website of the journal Neuropsychologia. "We are at the beginning of a new era of neuro-education."

The study also showed that the increases in activation of the brain's previously underactivating areas remained evident well after the intensive instruction had ended. And, 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," Just said.

The brain imaging research was supported by a grant from the R.K. Mellon Foundation, as well as the National Institute of Mental Health and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. In addition to Meyler and Keller, other study co-authors included Vladimir Cherkassky, of the CCBI, and John D.E. Gabriel, of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Related Links: CCBI

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