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Aerobics for the brain to help learning disabled children

Posted Nov 17 2008 9:04pm

Using lively, animated computer games and challenging drills, researchers have pioneered a therapy, dubbed “aerobics for the brain,” to help millions of children who slip years behind their peers in language development. .Two studies reported Friday in Science magazine centered on healthy children with normal intelligence who had language-based learning disabilities. One month of intensive therapy essentially “retrained their brains” and improved their language comprehension dramatically, researchers said.

A 7 -year-old child who at the outset ofthe study had the language comprehension of a 4-year-old, progressed to the level of a 6-year-old after training, said Paula Tallal, professor of neuroscience at Rutgers University, Newark, N.J., and a lead investigator in the bi-coastal study.

Language-learning disabilities (LLDs) affect as many as 10 percent of school-aged children and often lead to dyslexia, a type of reading disability. The costs to society are estimated at more than $7.5 billion a year.

In some children, LLDs stem from physical or mental defects, such as hearing loss, or mouth abnormalities such as cleft palate, or retardation. But the problem for most LLD children is timing. . Their brains don’t respond quickly enough to rapid-fire sounds of speech, Tallal said.

Such was the case for the children, ages 5 to 10 in the study.

“Everything for them was A-OK, normal in every way but delayed language,” said Tallal “Normally, the time required to perceive rapidly changing sounds is tens of milliseconds. For these children, the process takes hundreds of milliseconds. ” .

The therapy was based on Tallal’s research showing language-learning disability is neurologically based and on the work of co-lead investigator, Michael Merzenich, professor of otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco. He found that the brain is very plastic in that it physically changes and becomes more proficient in response to experience and training.

Armed with these findings, scientists at UCSF developed computer programs that isolated the troublesome speech sounds, stretched and amplified them.

For instance, the “fast” sounds of syllables heard as “ba” and “da” were slowed and accentuated so the children’s brains could pay more attention. ..

“It’s like taking a yellow highlighter to the acoustics,” Tallal said. Using specially designed exercises, they were trained to listen for differences in sounds and words and to learn grammar rules.

The results were stunning. In a month, language comprehension improved by about two years.

“Frankly, we were shocked at the results; they surprised me enormously,” Tallal said. I had been working with (such) children for 20 years and had seen the tremendous difficulties and knew how hard to it is to make real progress. At first I didn’t believe it.”

Next researchers took the acoustically altered speech and developed playful video games that required intense practice and offered rewards for correct responses. As the children got better at distinguishing the subtle sound changes, the games automatically sped up, shortening syllables until they approached real time. At home, the children practiced with CD-ROM games and audiotapes. .

“They showed dramatic improvement in their ability to process Speech sounds differently, like choosing between ‘bat’ and ‘cat’ and ‘lake’ and ‘rake,’ ” said Tallal. “We were able to drive them closer to tens of milliseconds within a month of practice.”

Current therapies, in which specially trained teachers focus on correcting the symptoms of the disorder, can take a year or more. The new approach zeros in on disorder’s root.

“Until now no one understood the neurological underlying cause: the ‘timing problem,’ It Tallal said.

Scientists aren’t sure how or why children develop the disability. It appears to be genetic, running in families. But because therapy was so dramatically successful in the study, evidently there is no lack of intelligence or defect in their brains’ learning machinery, and that means the difficulties can be overcome with training, Merzenich said.

Within the next year, researchers plan to distribute tests to identify LLD children with timing problems. They also plan to launch a national trial at multiple sites, to train speech and learning therapists to use the new therapy.

“We’re a year to a-year-and-a-half away from making this available to the public,” said Tallal. “And while this cannot be not offered in a laboratory or clinic at the moment, it is the hope of something on the horizon.”

More information on the studies can be found by calling 1-800-890-0445, or on the World Wide Web.

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