Research is turning up some surprising new insights into learning disabilities in children. The findings shed new light on possible causes of learning disabilities, and suggest there may be new ways to treat them.
Children live in a noisy universe. Now a growing body of research shows that a child's ability to process all those sounds is directly related to the ability to learn.
Conversely, children like 11 year old Molly Durot, who can't process sounds well, often develop learning disabilities. Molly has struggled with reading and writing from the start.
"She can tell you, 'Yeah, "R" makes the "rrrrr" sound,' but if you said the word 'storm' and then you asked her to spell it, she doesn't hear that 'r,' says Molly's mother, Anne.
After subjecting her to a battery of tests and getting a diagnosis of dyslexia, Molly's mother heard about research at Northwestern University into something called auditory processing disorder.
"What they're doing is taking brain waves or something," Molly says.
Children here watch movies and play listening games while highly sensitive equipment measures the brain's instantaneous response to speech sounds. Sure enough, Molly has a problem, and according to lead researcher Nina Kraus, it's something she can't help.
"There is, in fact, a biological basis for some learning problems in some children," says Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.
It's estimated that as many as one third of all children with learning disabilities have a hearing problem--not with their ears, but with their brains. That means everything from dyslexia to attention deficit disorder could be linked to a child's inability to interpret sounds.
Finding the source of the problem leads many to believe some learning disabilities could be reversed.
"The brain is more flexible than we ever thought it was, and we now know that it's possible to retrain the brain," says Dr. Larry Silver, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America.
For participating in the research, Molly gets paid five dollars an hour. But the biggest payoffs may be yet to come, if learning more about how we hear can eventually improve how we learn.
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