Scientists, meanwhile, are collaborating across disciplines to gain a better understanding of learning disabilities. At the UW, Wendy Raskind, a physician and associate professor of medicine, is heading up a genetics project, while Todd Richards, a physicist and professor of radiology, is directing a brain imaging project.
Researchers have long suspected that learning disabilities are inherited, though it isn't always obvious. In Alex's case, for example, it wasn't until his problems surfaced that his father began to talk about his own difficulty in learning to read. Like many adults, David Matteson had learned to compensate and went on to academic success, so that his disability couldn't be detected in tests researchers have developed. But when the entire Daniels/Matteson family was tested, Alex's older sister was found to have a mild disability. Kyle's older brother was also found to be mildly dyslexic.
The families of Alex and Kyle are among 102 that have taken a battery of language skill tests in the UW project. Researchers first identified a child with dyslexia, then tested the child's immediate family. If one of the parents either tested for or recounted a history of reading problems, they tried to also test that person's parents and siblings.
After three years of work, the UW project is just beginning the modeling phase. Using complicated statistical programs, researchers plug their data into possible models of transmission for the disorder to see which ones provide the best fit. Once they get a better picture of how dyslexia is passed down, they'll be able to zero in on genes that may cause it.
"It's almost certainly a number of genes interacting with each other, so getting an answer here is going to be complex," Raskind says.
Even if they are able to isolate the offending genes, the aim of the research is emphatically not gene therapy. "Dyslexia is a disorder only because in our society you have to read to succeed," Raskind explains. "The same genes that cause it may also confer advantages that we don't recognize, so we're not going to 'fix' them."
Instead, she and Berninger hope the genetics will make possible a blood test that would identify children at high risk to develop dyslexia. Such a test would qualify a child for early intervention services instead of forcing him or her to fail for several years before help arrives.
A blood test may not be the only evidence of dyslexia that comes out of the research. Alex and Kyle were among eight children with dyslexia who had their brains imaged while they were engaged in language tasks related to reading. Using a new technique developed at the UW called proton echo-planar spectroscopy imaging (PEPSI), the boys were placed in a magnetic resonance scanner running software that measures areas of brain activation.
When images of their brains were compared to those of children without dyslexia, researchers found that there was more brain activation in the dyslexics during the same language tasks tapping two of the markers for dyslexia. "It appeared that they had used more metabolic energy to do the same task," said Richards, who heads the imaging project.
Researchers repeated the imaging tests after the children with dyslexia completed tutoring, to see if there was any change in their brain functioning. They are currently analyzing the results.
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