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Reading Instruction Rewires Student Brains

One of the most exciting aspects of our internet age is the almost instant dissemination of key research, findings and breakthroughs. Though scientists always caution the public to be careful about leaping to conclusions when some intriguing analysis or research study is published, but it's tough to hold back when it comes to the field of neuroscience, a field with accelerating breakthroughs due, in part, to magnetic imaging machines now allowing researchers to see what's occurring in the brain as it functions.

Ever wonder whether hard evidence would ever appear (beyond testing, of course) that your intense instruction could physically change the brains of your students and increase performance?

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging have discovered the first evidence that a focused teaching on reading skills in young children causes the brain to physically rewire itself by creating completely new white matter that accelerates cognitive function and protects that communication within the brain.

Timothy Keller and Marcel Just, scientists at CMU, scanned children's brains with magnetic resonance imagers (MRI) machines so as to understand whether 100 hours of intensive remedial reading instruction affected the white matter of 8 to 10 year old poor readers...

...and it did!

Prior to this 100 hours of intense instruction, the poor readers in the study had significantly lower measures of something called "fractional anisotropy" or "FA", a measure used in imaging which reflects the density of white matter structure in the brain. The higher the FA score, the better the fiber density, axonal diameter and myelination of that white matter. In effect, this higher score reflects that a child's cognitive function is faster and better than those with a lower score.

The 100 hour instruction studied resulted in Keller and Just finding a measurable change in white matter (significantly increased FA). That growth suggests the speed of impulses moving along the circuits in the brain -- insulated by the myelin sheath and hardened by an increase in densities -- had accelerated.

I'm personally quite interested in this line of research and these results. As the father of a son with ADHD whose diet has been optimized with fish oil (a long known omega-3 fatty acid that essentially "lubricates" the brain's structures) but with zero gluten and casein in it (the protein most often found in wheat and dairy products, respectively) has resulted in profound reductions in anxiety, an increase in his cognitive functions, and a possible leveling of mood.

Though it probably goes without saying, had it not been for the internet and all the sites publishing articles on results like these, it's highly unlikely I would've discovered this breakthrough.

If you'd like to know more, the study is behind a paywall but you can read this article over at Science Daily.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.