|Behavioral Training Improves Connectivity and Function in the Brain
Children with poor reading skills who underwent an intensive,
six-month training program to improve their reading ability showed
increased connectivity in a particular brain region, in addition
to making significant gains in reading, according to a study funded
in part by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The
study was published in the Dec. 10, 2009, issue of Neuron.
"We have known that behavioral training can enhance brain function." said NIMH
Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. "The exciting breakthrough here is detecting
changes in brain connectivity with behavioral treatment. This finding with reading
deficits suggests an exciting new approach to be tested in the treatment of mental
disorders, which increasingly appear to be due to problems in specific brain
For the study, Timothy Keller, Ph.D., and Marcel Just, Ph.D., both of Carnegie
Mellon University, randomly assigned 35 poor readers ages 8–12, to an intensive,
remedial reading program, and 12 to a control group that received normal classroom
instruction. For comparison, the researchers also included 25 children of similar
age who were rated as average or above-average readers by their teachers. The
average readers also received only normal classroom instruction.
Four remedial reading programs were offered, but few differences in reading improvements
were seen among them. As such, results for participants in these programs were
evaluated as a group. All of the programs were given over a six month schooling
period, for five days a week in 50-minute sessions (100 hours total), with three
students per teacher. The focus of these programs was improving readers’ ability
to decode unfamiliar words.
Using a technology called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), the researchers were
able to measure structural properties of the children’s white matter, the insulation-clad
fibers that provide efficient communication in the central nervous system. Specifically,
DTI shows the movement of water molecules through white matter, reflecting the
quality of white matter connections. The better the connection, the more the
water molecules move in the same direction, providing a higher "bandwidth" for
information transfer between brain regions.
At the outset of the study, poor readers showed lower quality white matter than
average readers in a brain region called the anterior left centrum semiovale.
Six months later, at the completion of the intensive training, the poor readers
showed significant increases in the quality of this region. Children who did
not receive the training did not show this increase, suggesting that the changes
seen in the remedial training group were not due to natural maturation of the
In an effort to further pinpoint the mechanism underlying this change, the researchers
deduced that a process called myelination may be key. Myelin is akin to electrical
insulation, allowing for more rapid and efficient communication between nerve
cells in the brain. However, the directional association between brain changes
and reading improvements remains unclear — whether intensive training brings about
increased myelination that results in improved word decoding skills, or whether
improved word decoding skills leads to changes in reading habits that result
in greater myelination.
"Our findings support not only the positive effects of remediation and rehabilitation
for reading disabilities, but may also lead to improved treatments for a range
of developmental conditions related to brain connectivity, such as autism," noted
The mission of the NIMH is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental
illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention,
recovery and cure. For more information, visit the www.nimh.nih.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting
and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both
common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and
its programs, visit www.nih.gov.
Keller TA, Just MA. Altering cortical connectivity: Remediation-induced changes
in the white matter of poor readers. Neuron.