A new study conducted by Northwestern University scientists suggests that learning disabilities in children can now be identified by undergoing a simple scan of the brain.

Nina Kraus, director of the university's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, led a team of researchers in studying the ability of a child's brain to decipher sounds during learning.

They believe that understanding how children can understand sounds, such as consonants, in noisy settings can help determine whether they will experience difficulties in reading and language comprehension in the future.

In a study featured in the PLOS Biology, Kraus and her colleagues examined the brain patterns of 112 children, between three and 14 years old, by outfitting them with electroencephalography (EEG) wires. They then had the children wear headphones and listen to consonant sounds played along with noises.

The Northwestern researchers captured the responses of the children's brain in different aspects, which they used to produce a statistical model that they can use to measure the performance of the children on early literacy exams.

Through the use of this model, Kraus and her colleagues were able to accurately predict the performance of a three-year-old on various pre-literacy tests. They also identified the child's performance on several language skills required for reading at four years old.

The statistical model also helped the researchers to accurately predict the ability of school-aged children to read, and whether they had been diagnosed with disorders that could hinder their learning.

Kraus explained how important the role of sound plays in establishing communication between humans. She said that the listening experiences that people go through every day can help in language development by acting as clues for children to decipher which sounds have meaning.

Kraus added that if a child is not able to make meaning of the various sounds amid the noise in the background, he or she will find it difficult to develop the linguistic resources required when reading instruction starts.

The relationship between how a child's brain processes spoken information amid noise in the background and the reading proficiency of preliterate children allows scientists to properly address potential literary challenges that children may face in school.

"There are excellent interventions we can give to struggling readers during crucial pre-school years, but the earlier the better," Kraus said.

"The challenge has been to identify which children are candidates for these interventions, and now we have discovered a way."

Photo: Chris Parfitt | Flickr 

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