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The complete question

Do individuals with dyslexia show different MRI brain images when reading? If so, could MRIs be used to diagnose individuals with dyslexia?

Expert answer

Extraordinary progress in imaging technology now allow scientists to image a child’s brain as he or she is actually reading. The technology, referred to as functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, uses the same scanner as a typical MRI used to scan, for example, your knee if you have a torn ligament. The difference is that the fMRI uses special software and some adaptive hardware as well so that small changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain can be detected as a child reads. Using this technology, our research group (and others) has learned that there are three systems for reading on the left side of the brain, one in the front and two in the back of the brain.

We have also learned that in struggling readers, there appears to be less activation or a glitch in the two systems in the back of the brain. Our studies have also indicated what happens in the brain in children who compensated, to some degree, for their reading problems, and also identified the specific region called the “word form area” located in the back of the left of the brain that seems to be related to skilled or fluent reading.

Most excitedly, our recent studies, supported by the results of other investigators as well, demonstrate that the brain is highly malleable and under the influence of effective reading instruction — can change and resemble that of a good reader. Basically, this means that teaching matters — making it all the more important to ensure that each child receives reading instruction that has been proven to work — referred to as “evidence-based” reading instruction. Parents, teachers and we as a nation, should settle for no less. For anyone interested in more information and brain images, I refer you to my book Overcoming Dyslexia. Similarly, the notion of evidence-based education is discussed in detail in my book.

At this time, the use of functional imaging, fMRI, is limited to research. Clincial judgments about reading and reading disability are made on the basis of a child’s history, observations of how he or she reads and test results. To be explicit, MRI’s or any other imaging modality, is not currently recommended for use in the diagnosis of a reading problem.

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