Harnessing Brainwaves to Treat Dyslexia: Fact or Fiction

Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disorders in America, but also one of the most mysterious and under-diagnosed. Estimates put the rate of dyslexia in the U.S. at 10%, but because it often goes undetected, the rate may be as high as 17% of the population. Dyslexia may be detected even before a child learns to read, if she is exhibiting behaviors such as struggling to learn rhyming words or to develop letter recognition at the same rate as her peers. However, there are interventions and strategies that can be implemented at any age. With such a high incidence rate, it’s understandable that neuroscientists are searching high and low for the causes and effects of dyslexia.

Although there have been incredible advances in research around learning disorders it is still unclear just how brainwaves are associated with the brain activity used for reading. Over the last two decades, researchers have used MRIs and fMRIs to monitor the activity of a dyslexic brain. They have found that in dyslexic patients, the areas typically used in reading, writing, visual recognition, or often a combination of all of these, are underdeveloped. But with intensive training or tutoring, other areas of the brain can essentially grow to compensate for these underdeveloped areas. Thus, in young students with intensive reading tutoring, we can see an improvement in their symptoms, similar to how a stroke victim is able to recover – the brain makes new connections and other areas start to pick up the slack.

A recent study in the European Journal of Neuroscience attempted to investigate if the trend of “brain entrainment” (how the brain synchronizes its brainwaves to periodic stimuli) might be associated with language processing and therefore could potentially be adapted to help treat dyslexia. In a different study from 2015, researchers from the University of Geneva found that speech sounds, regardless of whether we are hearing them or making them, produce specific brainwaves that synchronize as we interpret the sounds into speech. However, the study in the EJN was published after revision due to highly critical comments from its reviewers. Media outlets went on to make the causal leap that the peer-reviewers cautioned against: the study design was not strong enough to claim that brainwave entrainment could in fact help dyslexic patients, although further research in all fields could change the game entirely.

Well established research institutes and the International Dyslexia Association continue to recommend a Structured Learning program (available for free!) and intensive tutoring.

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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.