In addition to making essential learning tasks difficult, dyslexia is problematic because it's hard to predict what children will be affected before they learn to read. While dyslexia isn't correlated with low IQ levels, poor education, or physical impairments, new research suggests the disorder could be diagnosed before kids even learn to read by analyzing their brain waves.
That's according to University of Amsterdam researchers, who tested this hypothesis as part of the nine year longitudinal Dutch Dyslexia Programme study (DDP) by conducting electroencephalography (EEG) studies on pre-literate children.
The researchers first measured resting brain activity in the subjects when they were three months old, and then compared the data to the results of reading comprehension tests administered over the course of their development until they reached third grade.
In their report on the study, published yesterday in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the researchers discovered that poor reading skills correlated strongly with high activity in the delta frequency band (0.5-2 Hz) and low activity in the alpha band (6-8 Hz). In other words, they were able to establish biomarkers in babies' brains that could indicate poor reading skills and even dyslexia later in life.
Previous research has suggested a connection between certain brain wave patterns during reading tasks and dyslexia. However, the disparate nature of these studies' subjects—kids and adults of varying socioeconomic and educational backgrounds—made it difficult for researchers to draw any kind of specific conclusions about the relationship between brain wave activity and dyslexia. The use of young children in a carefully controlled study that aimed to negate such unpredictable variables corrected this issue, according to the researchers.
While dyslexia is hard to predict, the researchers note that kids who have a family history of dyslexia are at higher risk. Thus, they suggest that "combining family-risk status, neurophysiological testing and behavioral test scores in a longitudinal setting" could improve diagnosis of the disorder, giving educators and parents more of a heads up.
EEG tech isn't just being used to tease out early indicators of dyslexia, it's finding use in all kinds of research about how the brain works. An EEG helmet recently approved by the FDA, for example, is being used to test kids for ADHD with an approach similar to that of the University of Amsterdam researchers.
The treatment potential of brain wave devices is also being explored by researchers. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), as the treatment's called, uses magnetic fields to stimulate electrical activity in parts of the brain and has been used to treat depression. Other researchers have used electrical currents to stimulate the frequency bands in the brain associated with consciousness.
Although the University of Amsterdam researchers don't mention new treatment possibilities, knowing which frequencies in the brain are associated with its onset could be the first step in that direction. At the very least, the study constitutes a promising advancement in understanding how dyslexia manifests itself in the brain.