Windward School: Dr. Ken Pugh, Dyslexia Authority
Kenneth Pugh, Ph.D., the president and director of research at Haskins Laboratories, delivered the Schwartz Memorial Lecture at Windward School to an eager crowd of parents and educators who would soon be fascinated by what brain images can tell us about how people learn to read.
John J. Russell, the head of school at Windward, introduced Pugh enthusiastically. Teachers there pay close attention to the research on dyslexia, he said, which is the basis of their program for students with language-based learning disabilities.
Pugh’s studies at Haskins Laboratory at Yale University use functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. This type of brain study is conducted while the patient is conscious and performing a task. The images show where the activity is happening in the brain.
Pugh proceeded with caution when explaining what the potential benefits of brain imaging could be in the future. He said that imaging could lead to a “much clearer, brain-based approach” to treatment and diagnoses, but warned that the science isn’t there yet. The promise is great, he said, but the delivery on those promises will take more time.
Pugh introduced his topic by saying that he was going to present the parents and teachers in attendance with an overview of the complex literature in cognitive neuroscience and where the research is leading in the future.
One of the benefits of fMRI imaging is that the images show researchers how people are biologically different, when these differences may be difficult to detect from behavioral studies.
“Reading is a really fascinating thing to study,” he said. While the human brain is hard-wired for spoken language, permanent language — or reading and writing — developed only 5,000 years ago. The brain is not specialized for reading, but because of what scientists call “brain plasticity,” humans have the ability to re-wire sections of the brain due to the experiences they have and behaviors they learn.
In a typical brain, fMRI images show three very specific sections on the right hemisphere that are lit up when someone is reading. Pugh describes what’s happening as a three-part circuit: When reading, the subject sees the letters, encodes their use and interprets them as language. As children become more experienced readers, the circuit speeds up and less brain energy is needed to complete the task.
In the brain of an advanced reader, this circuit goes from “vision to language as bloody fast as possible,” he said. The more advanced a reader is, the quicker this brain circuit works.
When children are learning to read, areas in the brain used for perceiving and connecting the content to other knowledge are recruited as part of this reading circuit, and this “doesn’t go well for a significant number of kids,” Pugh emphasized.
In people who have reading disabilities like dyslexia, this streamlined, three-part circuit doesn’t develop, and results in what Pugh describes as a “noisy brain.” The imaging studies show that people with dyslexia create their own circuit, which is slow, labored and prone to error. In fMRI images, these brains show activity all over the place, unlike the centralized locations that fire in a typically developing reader.
Probably the most important finding from the research Pugh presented was that treatment has been shown to re-wire the brain and normalize the circuit — an exciting prospect for the parents of children with dyslexia. In one longitudinal study, 85 percent of the participants responded to treatment and showed improvement a year after the study was completed.
Another exciting prospect of brain imaging is early detection. The sooner problems with this circuit are noticed, the easier it is to implement treatment.
Betsy Duffy, the director of language arts at Windward, said that teachers there apply direct teaching methods in their classrooms and assist students with every step of the learning process. Spelling patterns in English are very predictable, she said. The students are explicitly taught all the rules, which apply to 85 percent of words. #