Decoding Neurological Mechanisms for Compensation in Dyslexia, $3 Million NIH Grant

(Reading child/Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

When most people look at words on a page or screen, they see understandable combinations of 26 symbols they learned to recognize in Kindergarten. But for people who have a decoding-based reading disorder also known as dyslexia, they have incredible difficulty learning to read.

Some people with dyslexia are able to overcome challenges associated with the disorder through compensation, the use of alternative strategies or brain mechanisms. Very little however, is known about how the neurological system enables these mechanisms.

Previous research has shown that the brains of people with dyslexia become over-active when they read in areas generally not associated with reading. This has been interpreted as an evidence that those individuals use other neural pathways to support their reading.

University of Connecticut professor of psychological sciences Fumiko Hoeft has received more than $3 million from the NIH Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study this gap in knowledge about how compensatory mechanisms work in the brain.

Currently, research on this process is limited to largely correlational studies, and little is known about the degree to which various alternative neural pathways contribute to how individuals develop these compensatory abilities differently.

Hoeft will study the neural processes underlying linguistic and cognitive processes such as short-term memory and its impact on reading. She will use several neuroimaging methods to gain a deep understanding of compensatory mechanisms by measuring neurochemicals, cortical excitability, and functional and structural brain networks.

“We are excited to be among the first to examine compensatory mechanisms in the most rigorous way using state-of-the-art neuroimaging technology available at UConn’s BIRC (Brain Imaging Research Center),” says Hoeft.

This work will not only advance theories of compensatory mechanisms in dyslexia, but ultimately it may improve strategies to promote intervention models and success in both children and adults with dyslexia. By intervening early, people with dyslexia can strengthen neural pathways which are not functioning optimally and develop those involved in compensatory mechanisms.

“The knowledge gained will be helpful for struggling readers with dyslexia in identifying individual strategies to overcome their difficulties” says Hoeft. “The hope is that this research program will pave the way to study compensatory mechanisms in any disorder from mental health to neurological conditions.”

Hoeft received her MD and PhD in neuroscience/neurophysiology from Keio University School of Medicine. She is the director of BIRC at UConn and of the Laboratory for Learning Engineering and Neural Systems (brainLENS). Her research focuses on neurobiological mechanisms underlying individual differences in brain maturational processes, acquisition of skills such as literacy, and how they interact. The new grant will add to her existing program of research funded by four other NIH R01s and major foundation grants studying different aspects of reading, dyslexia, and learning disabilities.

Co-investigators include UConn assistant professor of psychological sciences and associate director of BIRC Roeland Hancock and Regents Professor of Psychology at Georgia State University Robin Morris.

This project is NIH Grant No. 1 R01 HD096261-01

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