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A group of scientists have found what they think may be the gene that controls the reading disorder dyslexia. As this ScienCentral News video reports, they hope finding the gene will lead to new ways to conquer this learning disability.
Keeping it in the Family
Symptoms, like difficultly sounding out words, make dyslexia readily detectable. But the causes of the disability are still hard to pinpoint.
"Why? What causes these otherwise very bright children to struggle to read?" asks pediatrician Sally Shaywitz, co-director of Yale University's Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, and the author of "Overcoming Dyslexia."
"Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty first in learning to read, and then in having to struggle to read," she explains. "That means the person who is dyslexic has all the factors present that say, 'This person should be a good reader. They're intelligent, they're motivated, and they've had good education. Yet they still struggle to read."
If left untreated, childhood dyslexia becomes an adult problem. "It's not something that's outgrown," says neurophysiologist Lynn Flowers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. "Ten percent of the child and therefore the adult population is affected by dyslexia to some degree," she says. "It isn't an all or nothing kind of disorder, it comes in shades as well."
Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that tends to run in families and studies have suggested that the disorder involves an inherited component. Now, a group of researchers, including Shaywitz, think they've found a "dyslexia gene."
After studying 153 families with reading disabilities, Shaywitz's team found the likely source of susceptibility in a gene called DCDC2 — a gene that works in the parts of the brain used for reading.
While the exact function of this gene is unknown, when the gene was suppressed in rats, the nerve cells in their developing brains didn't migrate as far within the brain as usual to end up in the right place, resulting in weak connections between the cells. Other studies show that when people have weak connections between the brain regions used for reading, dyslexia is often the result.
"We found that in the persistently poor readers, even though they were activating the same regions [of the brain] as the good readers, they weren't connected the same," Shaywitz explains. "Instead of being connected like good readers [allowing them to sound out words] they'd never been activated and connected properly." Judith Birsh, President of the New York branch of the International Dyslexia Association. says people without dyslexia process information in certain ways, in certain brain systems and certain neural pathways, and dyslexics do it differently and less efficiently. Dyslexics find it difficult to sort out the sounds within words, which make reading, writing and spelling very difficult. "If you're stuck at the word-reading level and you're laboring intensively over decoding [sounds], then you have nothing much left to work on comprehension and certainly you're not going to speed along because you're struggling along decoding the individual words," says Birsh. It can also have an affect on other aspects of a person's life such as short-term memory, mathematics and concentration.
Shaywitz hopes finding a dyslexia gene might help reduce its stigma.
"People who are dyslexic can do anything, if they have the ability and the interest. So I would encourage parents and educators not to prematurely track children into ways that are not intellectual and are not related to reading and writing, because some of our most gifted writers and physicians and scientists are also dyslexic," she says.
And while genes aren't the only cause of dyslexia, identifying them might help researchers devise better treatments to help the next generation as early as possible. "So we can identify at-risk children as early as three and a half, four. And that's important, particularly in children who have a family history because there are things that parents can do, like exposing children to rhymes and emphasizing rhymes, and teaching children about letters, and drawing their attention to words and how spoken words can be pulled apart," says Shaywitz. "So it's never too early to start and it's never too late to help."