Dyslexia is a disorder characterized by a marked difficulty with reading despite otherwise normal intelligence.

Individuals with dyslexia—who make up 10% of the world’s population—have problems with spelling, reading quickly, writing, or pronouncing words, as a result of issue in the brain’s language processing.

The disorder is conventionally diagnosed through a series of memory, spelling, vision, and reading tests—but by this point, it is often too late to alleviate the effects of dyslexia.

Early diagnosis is the key to providing relief from this disorder. And while this didn’t appear possible in the past, the present and future are looking bright. A new study “The Role of Slow Speech Amplitude Envelope for Speech Processing and Reading Development” carried out by the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL), offers a promising new approach to detecting children at risk of dyslexia before they even learn to read.

We currently must wait until children are 9 years old to diagnose dyslexia. But the results of this study suggest that the measurement of hearing capacity in very young children may enable us to identify those at risk of dyslexia much earlier. “The capacity of children to listen and process language is a decisive factor in learning to read,” explains Paula Rios-Lopez, supervisor of the study and research member for BCBL.

Training programs and activities that involve poetic metrics and language rhythms, designed to alleviate reading difficulties, could also be designed to effectively help those at risk. The overall goal, which has been developed in light of these findings, would be to avoid diagnosis of future dyslexic disorders and improve reading skills. Rios-Lopez gives an example: “We could make an activity as simple as playing a drum improve the rhythmic skills of the child with the purpose of gradually improving language perception and avoiding future disorders.”

In order to better understand and demonstrate the link between our hearing capacity and ability to learn how to read, researchers held an experiment with 40 kids who were in either second or fifth grade. The team simply told these children a pseudo-word (or a made-up word, with no meaning), which the kids were then asked to repeat back. The test showed that the given word was better understood if preceded by prosodic information, or information that only consisted of rhythm and melodies. It is also important to note that those who had lower reading scores were the ones who got the most out of the prosodic phrase, in terms of successfully understanding and repeating the pseudo-word.

This observation suggests that children who do not process low frequency sounds very well have a harder time understanding words, which is directly related to reading capacity and reading disorders like dyslexia. Rios-Lopez further explains these findings: “Rhythm offers the brain the key to focalizing auditory attention in moments when information relevant to speech perception appears. When the brain predicts the appearance of such information, an excitable state is produced, with the recruitment of neurons destined to adapt to it.”

There are more than 3 million new cases of dyslexia in the U.S. every single year. And while individuals who suffer from this disorder can still succeed in school with the help of tutoring or a specialized education program, researchers and scientists are hoping to alleviate the consequences as well as prevent as many new cases as possible. So far, it looks like they’re on the right track.

Sources: FECYT “Detecting Dyslexia Risks Before Learning to Read.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 31 October 2017. <http://neurosciencenews.com/early-dyslexia-reading-7843/>.

“The Role of Slow Speech Amplitude Envelope for Speech Processing and Reading Development” by Paula Ríos-López, Monika T. Molnar, Mikel Lizarazu and Marie Lallier in Frontiers in Psychology. Published online August 31 2017 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01497

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