Brains are most amenable to reading development in the first two years of primary education

    -     Nederlands
Brain regions and connections in the left hemisphere that are involved in readin

Brain regions and connections in the left hemisphere that are involved in reading. In red, the region and the connection that show structural differences between children with and without dyslexia. 

The regions that form the reading network in the brain mainly develop in the first two years of primary school. After that, the growth of these brain regions stabilises. This has been shown by a year-long study conducted by KU Leuven.

Neurobiological differences in dyslexia are already present at pre-school age 

The regions that form the reading network in the brain mainly develop in the first two years of primary school. After that, the growth of these brain regions stabilises. This has been shown by a year-long study conducted by KU Leuven in collaboration with technology company icometrix. The results highlight the importance of early intervention with reading problems such as dyslexia. This often begins in the third year at present, but the brain is less amenable to development at that time.

The study involved 75 children from Flanders, who were monitored for several years. Each year, they were given several reading and language-related tests, and had an MRI scan at three points: at the end of kindergarten (preschool education in Flandres, for children ranging from 2,5 to 6 years - editor’s note), after the second year of primary school, and halfway through the fifth year of primary school. This enabled the researchers to observe how the brain develops during different reading phases and the extent to which this differs in children with dyslexia.

"This allowed us to establish that the neurobiological differences between children with and without dyslexia are already present before they learn to read," says Professor Maaike Vandermosten (Department of Neuroscience), lead author of the study. "In children with dyslexia, we see less volume of the brain in the lower left region at the back. The connection between this region and regions at the front is also less well-developed."

"In the further development of the reading regions on the left-hand side of the brain, we did not observe any structural differences between children with or without dyslexia. Development is therefore similar, but the differences that were already present at pre-school age are no longer being compensated for. In addition, we found that children with dyslexia show different development in the brain regions on the right-hand side, beyond the reading network. This could be interpreted as compensation for the reading problems these children experience, but that strategy doesn’t seem to be very efficient."

Reading interventions traditionally begin in grade 3 because there has to be a ’persistent’ problem. However, our study shows that the reading network is most plastic and thus amenable to improvement in the years before that. 

Importance of early intervention

The study shows that the reading network develops mainly in the first two years of primary education. During this period, the brain regions responsible for reading development increase in volume. In the later years of school, a stabilisation takes place.

These findings point to the importance of early intervention in the treatment or prevention of language problems. "Reading interventions traditionally begin in grade 3 because there has to be a ’persistent’ problem," explains Professor Vandermosten. "However, our study shows that the reading network is most plastic and thus amenable to improvement in the years before that."

"So we need to be able to take preventive action before there’s already a definitive diagnosis. One possible avenue is interventions at an early age using games. These do not require much effort from parents or supervisors and are enjoyable for the children. In a follow-up study, we’re going to examine the effectiveness of these games."


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