Scientists Weigh in on Special Needs Learning

“Allowing children to fail, to think they’re ‘dumb,’ is no longer acceptable,” said Dana Alliance member Sally Shaywitz at a recent Capitol Hill briefing on what neuroscience can tell us about educating special needs children.


Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, joined fellow panelists Dana Alliance member Martha Denckla and Damien Fair for a discussion that addressed the importance and the difficulty of early detection of learning disorders such as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As reported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

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The Complicated World of ADHD Assessment

Brain Awareness Week (BAW) events in New York City are giving the public a chance to learn about and discuss any number of topics: autism, neuroscience and religion, head injuries in sports, enhancing memory, sleep disorders. One helpful workshop attended by about two dozen parents of children and adolescents who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was entitled: “The Role of Neurological Assessment in the Evaluation and Treatment of ADHD.”

Evaluating ADHD is complex, mainly because in more than half the children, the disorder co-occurs with other disorders, including problems with learning, substance abuse, anxiety, and motor coordination. According to the presentation, as many as five percent of all children worldwide have ADHD.

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New Cerebrum Story Updates the Latest on ADHD

ADHD Image Few topics stir controversy around a dinner party like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). From estimating the number of people who suffer from some variety of symptoms, to how ADHD is diagnosed and treated, to conjecture about the disorder’s actual cause, almost every aspect of ADHD is up for debate. In this month’s Cerebrum story, “ADHD: Ten Years Later,” Philip Shaw, Ph.D., writes about the progress that has been made in the 10 years since a landmark study showed that the structure of the brains of children with ADHD differs from that of unaffected children. When it comes to ADHD, determining the key hubs in the brain and how they network may be the easy part.

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ADHD, Multi-Tasking, and Reading

This weekend, more than 900 teachers, researchers, and other education experts met to share what they know about how we learn. At a session of the Learning & the Brain conference titled “The Web-Connected Generation: How Technology Transforms Their Brains, Teaching and Attention,” we heard a lot about multi-user virtual environments, enhanced reality, the myth of multitasking, and individualized web-based learning. But the tech story that most caught my attention was a slightly older one: reading.

Why do many kids with ADHD “suddenly” start to lag in reading comprehension by the fourth grade? They seem to have acquired the basic skills at the same rate and competence as their peers; they recognize and use phonemes, they can recall words at sight. One part of the reason is that we’ve been assuming that once kids master all the basic language skills they need, fluency just comes naturally, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case. Another is that the act of reading itself is a form of multitasking, and in some ways kids with ADHD have a harder time doing it.

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More Work for the Same Results

You often hear it in sports: The score does not tell the whole story. What people usually mean by this is that the final result is not indicative of how the game was played. This can be true in science as well, when the raw results of a test do not reveal the underlying issues.

This is the conclusion reached by two different researchers who presented at the human memory press conference this past Sunday at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting.

A study led by Julie Dumas, Ph.D., of the University of the Vermont looked at postmenopausal women, some who complained about memory problems and some who didn’t, and found no difference in the two groups’ performance on a memory test. However, the “complainers” activated more brain regions while performing the test. In other words, the women with cognitive complaints had to work harder than the non-complainers in order to do as well on the test.

“We believe our data show that women with cognitive complaints have brain that function like an older group of people,” Dumas said. When asked if the negative mindset—i.e. thinking you have a bad memory—could affect the brain imaging results, Dumas said no.

Tudor Puiu of Wayne State University in Michigan found similar results when he conducted his memory test on a much different group of participants. Puiu studied children (ages 7-14) with ADHD and found that a particular brain region (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) associated with controlling other parts of the brain worked harder in children with ADHD than children without it. Previous studies had shown the dorsal ACC to be structurally different in ADHD children.

“We specifically found that this area must work harder to influence other brain regions during brief memory tasks,” Puiu said. “This need for greater control, even for simple tasks, suggests that the ADHD brain is inefficiently organized, and that these inefficiencies in turn may make it more difficult for affected children to perform in school.”

Both studies could lead to therapies for those affected. Said Dumas of her study: “This finding is important because other research involving older groups of participants has suggested that the presence of cognitive complaints may be a risk factor for developing dementia. If we can identify these people at a younger age, perhaps Alzheimer’s disease prevention measures will be more effective.”

Puiu believes it may be possible to intervene early in the development of children with ADHD and improve efficiency in the dorsal ACC.

–Andrew Kahn

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