The Brain That Changes Itself – by Norman Doidge

“They were muddy in, muddy out,” says Merzenich. Improper hearing led to weaknesses in all the language tasks, so they were weak in vocabulary, comprehension, speech, reading, and writing. Because they spent so much energy decoding words, they tended to use shorter sentences and failed to exercise their memory for longer sentences. Their language processing was more childlike, or “delayed,” and they still needed practice distinguishing “da, da, da” and “ba, ba, ba.”

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Click Here to Get Your Free ChapterExtracts: “They were muddy in, muddy out,” says Merzenich. Improper hearing led to weaknesses in all the language tasks, so they were weak in vocabulary, comprehension, speech, reading, and writing. Because they spent so much energy decoding words, they tended to use shorter sentences and failed to exercise their memory for longer sentences. Their language processing was more childlike, or “delayed,” and they still needed practice distinguishing “da, da, da” and “ba, ba, ba.” Merzenich now became aware of the work of Paula Tallal at Rutgers, who had begun to analyze why children have trouble learning to read. Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of preschool children have a language disability that makes it difficult for them to read, write, or even follow instructions. Sometimes these children are called dyslexic. Babies begin talking by practicing consonant-vowel combinations, cooing “da, da, da” and “ba, ba, ba.” In many languages their first words consist of such combinations. In English their first words are often “mama” and “dada,” “pee pee,” and so on.

Tallal’s research showed that children with language disabilities have auditory processing problems with common consonant-vowel combinations that are spoken quickly and are called “the fast parts of speech.” The children have trouble hearing them accurately and, as a result, reproducing them accurately. Merzenich believed that these children’s auditory cortex neurons were firing too slowly, so they couldn’t distinguish between two very similar sounds or be certain, if two sounds occurred close together, which was first and which was second. Often they didn’t hear the beginnings of syllables or the sound changes within syllables. Normally neurons, after they have processed a sound, are ready to fire again after about a 30-millisecond rest. Eighty percent of language-impaired children took at least three times that long, so that they lost large amounts of language information. When their neuron-firing patterns were examined, the signals weren’t clear.

Fast ForWord is the name of the training program they developed for language-impaired and learning disabled children. The program exercises every basic brain function involved in language from decoding sounds up to comprehension—a kind of cerebral cross-training. The program offers seven brain exercises. One teaches the children to improve their ability to distinguish short sounds from long. A cow flies across the computer screen, making a series of mooing sounds. The child has to catch the cow with the computer cursor and hold it by depressing the mouse button. Then suddenly the length of the moo sound changes subtly. At this point the child must release the cow and let it fly away. A child who releases it just after the sound changes scores points. In another game children learn to identify easily confused consonant-vowel combinations, such as “ba” and “da,” first at slower speeds than they occur in normal language, and then at increasingly faster speeds. Another game teaches the children to hear faster and faster frequency glides (sounds like “whooooop” that sweep up). Another teaches them to remember and match sounds. The “fast parts of speech” are used throughout the exercises but have been slowed down with the help of computers, so the language-disabled children can hear them and develop clear maps for them; then gradually, over the course of the exercises, they are sped up. Whenever a goal is achieved, something funny happens: the character in the animation eats the answer, gets indigestion, gets a funny look on its face, or makes some slapstick move that is unexpected enough to keep the child attentive. This “reward” is a crucial feature of the program, because each time the child is rewarded, his brain secretes such neurotransmitters as dopamine and acetylcholine, which help consolidate the map changes he has just made. (Dopamine reinforces the reward, and acetylcholine helps the brain “tune in” and sharpen memories.)

“Before he did Fast ForWord,” his mother recalls, “you’d put him at the computer, and he got very stressed out. With this program, though, he spent a hundred minutes (now 30 minutes – editor) a day for a solid eight weeks at the computer. He loved doing it and loved the scoring system because he could see himself going up, up, up,” says his mother. As he improved, he became able to perceive inflections in speech, got better at reading the emotions of others, and became a less anxious child. “So much changed for him. When he brought his midterms home, he said, ‘It is better than last year, Mommy.’ He began bringing home A and B marks on his papers most of the time—a noticeable difference…Now it’s ‘I can do this. This is my grade. I can make it better.’ I feel like I had my prayer answered, it’s done so much for him. It’s amazing.” A year later he continues to improve Because so many autistic children have language impairments, clinicians began to suggest the Fast ForWord program for them. They never anticipated what might happen.

Parents of autistic children who did Fast ForWord told Merzenich that their children became more connected socially. He began asking, were the children simply being trained to be more attentive listeners? And he was fascinated by the fact that with Fast ForWord both the language symptoms and the autistic symptoms seemed to be fading together. Could this mean that the language and autistic problems were different expressions of a common problem? Two studies of autistic children confirmed what Merzenich had been hearing. One, a language study, showed that Fast ForWord quickly moved autistic children from severe language impairment to the normal range. But another pilot study of one hundred autistic children showed that Fast ForWord had a significant impact on their autistic symptoms as well. Their attention spans improved. Their sense of humor improved. They became more connected to people. They developed better eye contact, began greeting people and addressing them by name, spoke with them, and said good-bye at the end of their encounters. It seemed the children were beginning to experience the world as filled with other human minds.

What is remarkable about the cortex in the critical period is that it is so plastic that its structure can be changed just by exposing it to new stimuli. That sensitivity allows babies and very young children in the critical period of language development to pick up new sounds and words effortlessly, simply by hearing their parents speak; mere exposure causes their brain maps to wire in the changes. After the critical period older children and adults can, of course, learn languages, but they really have to work to pay attention. What if it were possible to reopen critical-period plasticity, so that adults could pick up languages the way children do, just by being exposed to them? Merzenich had already shown that plasticity extends into adulthood, and that with work—by paying close attention—we can rewire our brains. But now he was asking, could the critical period of effortless learning be extended?

Merzenich continues to challenge the view that we are stuck with the brain we have at birth. The Merzenich brain is structured by its constant collaboration with the world, and it is not only the parts of the brain most exposed to the world, such as our senses, that are shaped by experience. Plastic change, caused by our experience, travels deep into the brain and ultimately even into our genes, molding them as well—a topic to which we shall return ndoidge

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Dyslexia, Visual or Auditory?

A Segment of Dyslexia – Issues with the Human “Letter Box”:

Dyslexia, Visual or Auditory Issue

Key Points

  • For some with dyslexia, the “letter box” of the mind is not reacting the way it does in average readers.
  • Reading does not come naturally. The brain of a human is not “wired” for reading
  • Children need to perceive speech sounds and letters quickly and accurately to read effectively.
  • Dyslexics experience difficulty with both listening to the sounds inside of words and perceiving letters.
  • The visual word structure region of the brain; in the occipital lobe, there is a “letter box”

Get Your Free Paper on Reading Difficulties The first endeavors to treat dyslexia 50 years or more ago focused around the significance of letter recognition. Early researchers misunderstood dyslexia and thought that children with dyslexia who had reading problems read the letters and words in reverse. Dehaene has shown that a young reader tends to confuse letter direction. Children need to  discover that a “d” and a “b” are not the same despite the fact that they have a line and a circle at the base.   The question when attempting to comprehend kids with dyslexia, is whether the visual word structure is working the same way when kids battle to figure out how to read or to read fluently. Previous blog entries have examined how most kids determined to have dyslexia show issues with the capacity to perceive speech sounds, the other portion of the “sound to letter” correspondence limit. Be that as it may, are there additionally issues with identifying letters visually? Dr. Dehaene research indicates  that there are also problems with visual recognition of letters. Visual versus Auditory – Does it matter for dyslexia? The human mind develops numerous abilities. As we know well, most kids effectively figure out how to walk and talk with no explicit instruction. What a large number of us don’t understand is that the human brain was not intended to read. The alphabet is only 4,000 years of age and yet the anthropologists say homo sapiens has been on earth for 200,000 years. Indeed, even after standard alphabets appeared not very many adults could read or compose. Actually, it wasn’t until the 20th century before universal reading and compulsory teaching was introduced.   Stanislas Dehaene, one of the neuroscientists specialized in reading and maths in the brain has noted that to read we need to use parts of the brain that was designed for other use We can consider this as a sort of neurological borrowing – brain circuitry, particularly adjusted over hundreds of years for one reason, say for communicaition, to end up being used for reading. Luckily, the dialect and visual object recognition systems of the cerebrum becomes full grown in early pre-school years, and after that multitask in a manner to reconfigure for reading. To comprehend this mind reusing method, we should remind ourselves of what is required for reading. The English alphabet and reading requires that we combine the speech sounds of our dialect,  the phonemes, with the letters, graphemes. This “sound-letter (or phoneme-grapheme) correspondence” requires two limits – the capacity to identify speech sounds rapidly and precisely and then process letters rapidly and precisely. Dr. Dehaene discusses this in an article entitled “Inside the Letter Box”.   As indicated by Dr. Dehaene, “letter box” which is the visual word structure region of the brain, is situated in the region area at the base of the visual part of the brain (the occipital lobe) in the left side of the hemisphere. It is known as the “letter box” as a result of the fact that it demonstrates more stimulation to written words and not by other kinds of visual patterns (like places, faces). The letter box is situated in the same spot for everyone who can read. It is particularly housed in the areas of the occipital lobe, which are activated once we see faces or pictured objects. Dehaene and others have noted that if the “letter box” is harmed or separated from other brain areas by a stroke or other kind of limited cerebrum damage, the individual frequently loses the ability to read.   Dr. Dehaene pointely, states that the “letter box” doesn’t simply help us to perceive words. The letter box has other very complex capacities that are key for fluent reading. For instance, when a person is requested to figure out if the words composed as “READ” and read” are the same words,  it lights up first. Despite the fact that to most perusers of the this blog, that appears like a basic task, upper and lower case letters, for example, “B” and “b” or “G” and “g” or even “E” and “e” are not entirely similar in pattern and form. We need to figure out how to “consider” them to be the same letter, despite the fact that they are altogether different shapes. That doesn’t happen with other visual items – we absolutely never see a circle and a square as the same shapes or our spouse’s and his or her brother’s faces as the same. So letters are distinctive only in that way  – When we read from script letters and a wide range of handwriting styles, upper and lower case letters are recognized as the same. Dr. Dehaene, and his colleagues in a recent brain imaging research report in the journal Neuroimage confirmed, great readers demonstrate a well-developed visual word structure area (the letter box). Dyslexics, then again, demonstrated no such specialization for written words. Children who are struggling to read not only have problems perceiving the sounds within the words, but also have problems recognizing the letters.  – At any rate the “letter box” part of the brain is not reacting the way it does in normal readers.     Children need to discover that that’s a word is not an item, and that the inner subtle element of a word is as essential as the outline. The words House and Horse are different in pronunciation and meaning, although they look a great deal alike at first look, yet the distinction in the third letter makes an immense difference. Children take time to figure this out – however, it doesn’t mean they have dyslexia. It appears that both sides of the reading equation are important – auditory/linguistic and visual. Research in the last couple of decades has shown that children with dyslexia  have problems with sound-related perceptual, language components of reading and  phonological awareness.   New research focuses on the significance of reading interventions that enhance all segments of reading disorders: visual letter recognition, auditory perception, language skills and phonological awareness. The new research likewise indicates the significance that has evidence-based information revealing the overlap with the intervention components and the underlying brain structural changes. The intervention designed by neuroscience like Fast ForWord has examined adults and children with dyslexia by utilizing  brain imaging  technology. It is helpful because it shows when the activation of the brain area increases and the link to reading test gains.   Elise Temple and her partners performed such a study, utilizing fMRI really demonstrated that with kids who were determined to have dyslexia, the Fast ForWord Language program really expanded activity in language regions and also the visual word structure area.

Suggested readings

Dehaene, S. (2013) Inside the Letterbox: How Literacy Transforms the Human Brain. Cerebrum. May-June:7. Published online 2013 Jun 3. Monzalvo, Fluss, Billard, Dahaene, & Dehaene-Lambertz, (2012).  Cortical networks for vision and language in dyslexic and normal children of variable socio-economic status. Neuroimage, 61 (2012) 258-274 Temple, E., Deutsch, G. K., Poldrack, R. A., Miller, S.L., Tallal, P., Merzenich, M. M., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2003). Neural deficits in children with dyslexia ameliorated by behavioral remediation: Evidence from functional MRI. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(5), 2860-2865. Get Your Free Paper on Reading Difficulties

Changes in Brain Function

I have been very interested in how modern brain imaging technologies can teach us things about how children learn and how they struggle to learn and so that’s how I’ve been interested for a while. And then I learned in reading the scientific literature about the work of Tallal and Merzenich that underlies Fast ForWord and scientific learning. I was so impressed by their neuron scientific approach that they had taken to developing this program. I thought it would have been natural to see how the program actually alters children’s brains to go through it.

We looked at these children before they did Fast ForWord. They did Fast ForWord and then we looked at their brain again afterwards and tried to see if they were any changes in brain functions.

The two biggest things that we are following;

First, some part of the brain that children are normally engaged to read were not activated to start within the poor readers and those were now activated, so we saw some part of the brain become normalized to show the activity expecting good readers.

The second, we saw which was perhaps less expected was that many other part of the brain, there are not typically engaged in reading were also turned on as a consequence of the training program.

We are terribly excited by the interaction between education and science. Education is such a struggle in this country and so important for the children. And many scientific methods have not yet been unleashed, you know in a way that is useful for education.

And so that is one of the most exciting things about Fast ForWord, it’s that it’s trying to bridge the gap between science and education. Have education inform the science and science inform the education.

Phonics Bulletin - Fast ForWord

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John D. E. Gabrieli, Ph.D.
Grover Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology

Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

We seek to understand the organization of memory, thought, and emotion in the human brain. We want to discover how the healthy brain supports human capacities, such as hippocampal support for declarative memory, amygdala support for emotional memory, and prefrontal cortical support for working memory. We also study how experience alters functional brain organization (brain plasticity). We aim to understand principles of brain organization that are consistent across individuals, and those that vary across people due to age, personality, and other dimensions of individuality. Therefore, we examine brain-behavior relations across the life span, from children through the elderly. We are also interested in learning how disadvantageous variations in brain structure and function underlie diseases and disorders, and have studied developmental disorders (dyslexia, ADHD, autism), age-related disorders (Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease), and psychiatric disorders (depression, social phobia, schizophrenia). Further, we want to understand how potential behavioral or pharmacologic treatments alter brain function when they are therapeutically effective.

Our primary methods are brain imaging (functional and structural), and the experimental behavioral study of patients with brain injuries. The majority of our studies involve functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), but we also employ other brain measures as needed to address scientific questions, including diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), MRI structural volumes, and voxel-based morphometry (VBM).

Much of our research occurs in the Martinos Imaging Center at the McGovern Institute, MIT, which is affiliated with the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging . The Martinos centers are a collaboration among the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts General Hospital , and Harvard Medical School . Our affiliations with these outstanding research institutions promote the opportunity for cutting-edge basic cognitive neuroscience research and translation from basic science to clinical application.

The Importance of Timing


Paula A. Tallal, Ph.D., a director of Scientific Learning Corporation, is also a Board of Governors’ professor of neuroscience at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, USA, where she helped found and currently co-directs the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience.

Tallal is a cognitive neuroscientist and board-certified clinical psychologist who has authored over 200 professional publications and holds several patents.

She was selected by the Library of Congress in the USA to be the Commentator for the Field of Psychology at its Bicentennial Celebration and earned the Thomas Alva Edison Patent Prize for her work leading to the development of Fast ForWord software.

Tallal received her bachelor’s degree from New York University and her Ph.D. from Cambridge, England. She is also a participant in many scientific advisory boards and governmental committees on developmental language disorders and learning disabilities.

Research You Can Rely On

Steve Miller is an education technology executive with more than 20 years of industry experience. As an academic, he has taught undergraduate and graduate courses and has extensive experience in conducting a sponsored research program in neuroscience and cognitive neuropsychology including a large multi-site research initiatives on the neural basis of brain plasticity and learning.

He has authored or co-authored more than 100 publications including numerous research studies, commercial software programs and U.S. Patents. He is a passionate collaborator with broad business experience in technology transfer and translational research.

He co-founded Scientific Learning an education software company based on the neuroscience of learning. The company started as a technology transfer from UCSF Medical Center and Rutgers University. He has extensive experience in contract research (NIH) as well as a co-developer on at least a dozen software titles.

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