Behavioral training rewires brain, study shows


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It’s not surprising that an intensive six-month training program for children with poor reading skills improves their performance, as a new study has demonstrated. The unexpected finding is that the skills program actually spurred brain changes that could be the underpinnings for the children’s progress.

The study, published today in the journal Neuron, was lauded by the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Thomas R. Insel. The NIMH funded the research.

‘We have known that behavioral training can enhance brain function,’ Insel said in a news release. ‘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 circuits.’

The study’s authors, from Carnegie Mellon University, randomly assigned 35 children to an intensive remedial reading program and 12 children to a control group receiving normal classroom instruction. The children in both groups were poor readers. A group of 25 children who were rated average or above-average readers was also studied. The researchers used an imaging device called diffusion tensor imaging to look at the children’s white matter, the substance in the brain that is key to communications throughout the central nervous system.

At the start of the study, the poor readers showed lower quality white matter connections in one part of the brain. But after six months of intensive training, the poor readers showed big increases in this matter. Children who did not receive the training did not show the increase.

The study supports the use of intense behavioral learning programs to address such deficits as reading disabilities, the authors said. This approach could also be used for treating other conditions in which connections in the brain are key, such as autism.

-- Shari Roan