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Rapid and Widespread White Matter Plasticity During an Intensive Reading Intervention

Huber, E., Donnelly, P. M., Rokem, A., & Yeatman, J. D. (2018) Nature Communications, 9, 2260. doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04627-5

White matter tissue properties are known to correlate with performance across domains ranging from reading to math, to executive function. Here, we use a longitudinal intervention design to examine experience-dependent growth in reading skills and white matter in grade school-aged, struggling readers. Diffusion MRI data were collected at regular intervals during an 8-week, intensive reading intervention. These measurements reveal large-scale changes throughout a collection of white matter tracts, in concert with growth in reading skill. Additionally, we identify tracts whose properties predict reading skill but remain fixed throughout the intervention, suggesting that some anatomical properties stably predict the ease with which a child learns to read, while others dynamically reflect the effects of experience. These results underscore the importance of considering recent experience when interpreting cross-sectional anatomy–behavior correlations. Widespread changes throughout the white matter may be a hallmark of rapid plasticity associated with an intensive learning experience.

The Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington conducted a study examining growth in reading skills and neural connections (white matter) as a result of intensive reading intervention to develop the sensory-cognitive function of symbol imagery. This study is the first to measure white matter during an intensive reading intervention for dyslexics, comparing children’s learning with their brain’s changes. The children who struggled with reading and/or had a diagnosis of dyslexia received eight weeks of intensive reading intervention at a Lindamood-Bell Learning Center. They took a series of reading tests before and after the intervention, and underwent MRI scans at the beginning, middle, and end. A control group of children with mixed reading skill levels did not receive the reading intervention.

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