Senior Dana Alliance Couple Demystifies Dyslexia

It was not long ago that dyslexia was believed to be a sign of laziness, unintelligence, or even bad vision. However, thanks to breakthroughs in research by couple Sally Shaywitz, M.D., and Bennett Shaywitz, M.D., stereotypes around the learning disorder have begun to fade.

Affecting approximately one in five people, dyslexia is characterized by a difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words, which is called decoding. Also known as a reading disability, dyslexia affects areas of the brain that process language. Dyslexia is not considered a disease, and its causes are neurobiological and genetic. Those affected by it can fall anywhere on a wide spectrum, and treatment involves adjusting teaching methods to meet the person’s needs.

While it has been studied before, the Shaywitzes are often credited with many of the breakthroughs regarding the disorder. Sally, 76, and Bennett, 79, are both Dana Alliance for Brain Initiative members who have been married for 55 years. Having met in 1963 at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the couple now run the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity and have recently updated a study they began in 1983, according to their recent profile in The New York Times.

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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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Creativity and Dyslexia

What do actor Henry Winkler, Connecticut governor Dan Malloy, paleontologist Jack Horner, and New York student Skye Lucas have in common? Dyslexia and success. In an article for The Wall Street Journal, Melinda Beck argues that many experts believe dyslexia does not influence intelligence and that many dyslexic individuals have thrived by utilizing creative talents, the ability to think differently, and by working harder than their peers.

From the WSJ article: “As many as one in five Americans has some degree of dyslexia, according to Yale research, although only about 5% of children have been formally diagnosed. And it clearly runs in families; six gene variations have been linked to the condition to date. Dyslexia was long thought to be a vision-related problem, but there’s a growing consensus that dyslexics instead have difficulty associating letters with spoken sounds and blending them together fluidly to make words.”

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BAW Events Help Dyslexic Students

Our guest blogger is Marilyn Cook, a Brain Awareness Week partner and professional educational therapist who works as a reading/district dyslexia specialist for K-12 students in the Port Aransas (Texas) Independent School District.

“Wow…I didn’t know that was a picture of the brain.”

“I want to learn more about this.”

“This is so cool.”

“I can’t believe these students can do this.”

What could these people be talking about? Why Brain Awareness Week, of course!

About three years ago, my interest in neuroscience led me to surf the web and find a treasure trove of information about the brain and an exciting opportunity to become a partner in an international brain awareness campaign sponsored by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. The organization’s website has excellent resources, and combined with some imagination, the possibilities to teach about the brain and how it functions are endless. With a generous grant from The Port Aransas Educational Foundation, I was able to develop the Brain Awareness Week (BAW) initiative Neuroscience for Kids: The Mind That’s Mine for my students and my schools.

A goal I have for my students is for them to figure out their best individual learning styles. In the words of a school staff member, “[the students] are proud and they own their challenges.” To help accomplish my goal, I use kid-friendly resources from Dana such as Brainy Kids Online and the Its Mindbloggling! booklets, as well as the website Neuroscience for Kids from the University of Washington. Several teachers and the counselor of the middle and elementary schools have commented how the students that participate in brain awareness activities have become more confident in their abilities and are more patient with students who struggle.

BAW began early with this year with our lunch and learn program at the Brundrett Middle School. The students I work with have dyslexia and other learning challenges, so we have been meeting and discussing how our brains work. During our first lunch, students were already asking about our next BAW activity.

At one of our presentation luncheons at H.G. Olsen Elementary School, we hosted local pediatrician Dr. Lori Anderson and our school counselor Jeri Franco for discussions on how the brain works and dyslexia. Dr. Anderson even made a brain out of Jell-O, which the students thought was the “coolest thing.”

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An integral part of our BAW program is student displays. Students from the Brundrett Middle School have exhibited posters about the brain at several venues, including the Brundrett Middle School libraries and the Bill Ellis Memorial Library (Port Aransas city library). Poster topics have included learning challenges as a strength (featuring many famous people with dyslexia) and a comparison of the brain activity of two reading students; one with dyslexia and one without.

In 2011, the Port Aransas Independent School District partnered with the Art Center for the Islands and provided students grades 3-7 with activities based on the theme, Your Brain on Art and Reading. This idea was based on a study from the Dana Foundation on the brain and the visual arts. Over the course of a week, students studied the brain and what happens when they read and when they view visual art. One particular project that the students completed was to draw the brain with an acetate overlay showing how the brain activates when looking at images from art history. They also participated in creative activities with two guest artists, using colored dyes and colored chalk. At the end of the week, a student art show was held and the students discussed their brains in relation to the art they created. These activities have resulted in an increased interest in student art classes and in conversations about how we learn.

BAW has been a wonderful learning initiative for both me and my students. And we’re not the only ones who benefit from the experience. I feel that the school community and the surrounding community have also benefitted from BAW. We have increased awareness of dyslexia, including dispelling certain myths, and through lessons on brain function, we have promoted the idea that people learn in diverse ways.

–Marilyn Cook

AAAS: Brain-changing power of music prompts calls for more education, therapy

Growing evidence that music training can enhance certain mental abilities, can alleviate the symptoms of learning disorders, and can restore lost functions in people with neurological damage has prompted calls to increase school music programs and therapeutic treatments.

At a press conference Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Nina Kraus, a communications disorder professor at Northwestern University, and Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, summarized recent research outlining the profound ability of music to enhance or restore brain pathways and the implications of those findings for health and education.

Kraus pointed out that music is reflected literally by the brain. After hearing a sound, a person's brain waves come to mirror that melody, she said, playing several pairs of music sequences and brain waves to demonstrate. But music exerts its most profound effects after extensive training, by increasing not just the ability to learn and play music but also facility with memory, attention, and pattern recognition. In fact, she said, her work suggests that intensive music training may be key to treating or ameliorating childhood learning disabilities, as it greatly enhances the abilities that suffer the most in those conditions.

In a recent study, for instance, she found that trained musicians have a much greater ability to discern speech in noisy situations, such as crowded restaurants or bars, than those without any musical experience, a kind of pattern-recognition task some children also have great difficulty with. The finding, which appeared in the December 2009 issue of the journal Ear and Hearing, echoes research her group presented at the 2009 Society for Neuroscience meeting showing that trained musicians have enhanced abilities to focus on and memorize sounds, other abilities lacking in people with dyslexia, autism, and related disorders. This suggests, she said, that elementary and secondary schools are making a mistake when they cut out music programs. "The education and remediation possibilities of music training are very encouraging," she said.

Schlaug played several videos showing the power of melodic intonation therapy (MIT) to rewire seriously damaged brains. As we have described previously, MIT is a technique developed for treating nonfluent aphasia, or an inability to speak due to damage, usually from a stroke, to the language-processing regions in the brain's left hemisphere. During the treatment, a music therapist teaches the patient to feel out the melody of specific phrases by tapping his or her hand and then to repeat the phrases aloud in a singsong voice. Typically, the treatment course is intense, consisting of 70 to 80 sessions over several weeks.

The results can be spectacular; most patients, Schlaug said, recover significant amounts of speaking ability, and one patient even felt comfortable enough to make a short public speech. In one particularly compelling video clip, a man went from mumbling nonsense phrases to being able to recite his full mailing address after 75 therapy sessions. "These kinds of music-making therapies are very useful for patients suffering from strokes and other neurological disorders," Schlaug said. "It engages parts of the brain that are not normally engaged and links parts of the brain that are not normally linked."

Although the therapy has shown promising results, it is still in the early stages of testing, Schlaug added. If it pans out, tens of thousands of stroke victims could benefit from the therapy each year in the United States alone. The true challenge then, he said, would be gaining widespread traction for the treatment, by getting therapists to feel comfortable with the oddness of singing with their patients and by ensuring that insurance companies reimburse people for MIT sessions.

Schlaug has been a pioneer in the field of music and the brain studies; some of his research is funded by the Dana Foundation. Mentioned only obliquely in his presentation, for instance, was a four-year study he is helping to conduct that compares the cognitive abilities of children undergoing regular music training with those who are not. Not surprisingly, he and his colleagues have found that, after 15 months, children who practice music showed more improvements in motor skills and melody and rhythm identification tasks related directly to music. But after 30 months, the results seem more in line with those of Kraus and her lab, with the children beginning to show suggestive, though not significant, signs of "far transfer" benefits—increases in most distantly related skills, such as vocabulary and abstract reasoning.

–Aalok Mehta

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