Exploring the brains of babies

Growing up, I thought of myself as a pretty smart kid, but school always seemed to be harder for me than some of my friends. I understood all my reading, but when it came time to communicate that to my teachers I came up short. For some reason, there was a disconnect between what I knew and what I could prove that I knew. By the fourth grade I was tested for learning disabilities and was diagnosed with dyslexia. My teachers were notified, I adapted some of my studying habits, and after a few short months going to school became something I enjoyed, rather than dreaded. (I can’t say I was thrilled to be the only high school senior still muttering the ‘i before e except after c…” rhyme while writing, but it helped and I eventually graduated with flying colors.)

Seeing as I now write for living, I’ve clearly outgrown my initial hate for the written word. But part of me can’t help but wonder what my writing skill-set would be like had my learning issues been discovered earlier, making my first few years of school less challenging.

Thanks to work being done at Children’s Hospital Boston, early detection of learning disabilities could be possible in the not-so-distant future, in some cases long before the child is even old enough to read. Co-lead by Ellen Grant, MD, director of the Fetal-Neonatal Neuroimaging and Developmental Science Center at Children’s Hospital Boston, and Nadine Gaab, PhD, assistant Professor of Pediatrics, the study is using neuroimaging to look for brain patters, which could indicate future learning disabilities.  Here’s a video explaining some of the techniques they use to study developing brains.

If learning disabilities can be identified early enough, doctors hope children with these conditions can be taught learning strategies early in life, often treating their learning disability before it’s even apparent.

The following is an excerpt from a Boston Globe article that highlights Gaab and Grant’s work in this field.

Nothing was wrong with Ava; the 11-month-old from Boston was part of a study that uses brain imaging to see if early hallmarks of dyslexia can be seen years before children have trouble reading. Scientists believe that if they can identify nascent disorders such as dyslexia or autism earlier, and get a jump on therapy, they might eventually be able to prevent children from developing problems later.

Ellen Grant, MD

“We know many important pediatric disorders start to emerge early on, and some things, for example dyslexia, you might not pick up until they’re reading. But you know their brain has probably started to diverge from normal in some way early on,’’ said Dr. P. Ellen Grant of Children’s Hospital Boston, who is leading the study with Nadine Gaab, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s. The research is being done at the hospital’s Waltham clinic.

Nadine Gaab, PhD

Scientists have previously experimented with behavioral tests to try to identify learning disabilities or even mental health problems well before a person meets the criteria for a disease, but now they are beginning to turn to sophisticated imaging techniques.

For example, a pilot study, published earlier this year in the journal BMC Medicine and led by other researchers at Children’s Hospital, used a technique that measures electrical activity in the brain to study 9-month-old infants that were at risk of autism. In other studies, researchers are imaging the brains of babies born prematurely, who are more prone to learning disabilities and other cognitive problems, and the brains of children with Tourette syndrome.

In those disorders, as with dyslexia, researchers hope to learn when problems develop, what goes awry in the brain, how treatments affect the brain, and whether problems can be detected and even fixed before symptoms appear.


For the full article please click here. If you are interested in having your child participate in the study, they are currently recruiting infants ages 5 months and older from families with or without a family history of developmental dyslexia. Please click here for information on how you can get involved.