Neuroscience research into dyslexia leads to 'brainprints'
April 14, 2016 - 11:57 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. - A wonderful thing about basic research is its tendency to produce
advances researchers hadn't anticipated. Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah
Laszlo, for instance, found her early childhood learning studies took an
unexpected jump into the worlds of security and identity verification.
Laszlo's research at Binghamton University, State University of New
York, uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure children's brain
activity as they learn to read. Through collaboration with colleagues,
however, she found the work also offered a potential breakthrough in
biometrics -- physical attributes, like fingerprints, that can be used
to verify people's identities.
Advancements over the past decade have revolutionized what EEG can
tell researchers. Improvements in underlying technologies (e.g., size,
comfort, and portability of sensors, the ability to measure the signal,
and the ability to analyze large amounts of data) allow Laszlo and her
colleagues to follow individual children's development over time. Those
new advantages have created opportunities to study an important area of
learning development: reading.
"Previous research in this area predominantly focused on comparing
groups of people, but when we are following an individual, we can begin
to predict, on a child-by-child basis, who will develop problems reading
in the future, at least two years in advance," she said. "That gives us
a lot of extra time to help that child before problems become
The ability to predict future problems with reading would provide an
important tool for researching and preventing development of these
issues. Research has shown that intervention can effectively help
children with dyslexia and other reading disabilities -- but that
intervention must take place early, usually before second grade. Even
attentive caregivers can have difficulty recognizing when a child has
reading troubles before first or second grade.
"We are working toward developing a type of reading ability screening
test that could be used how a hearing test is used now," Laszlo said.
"Having a predictive test would double or triple the time period for an
Her lab studies children ages 4 to 14 who fall across the spectrum of
reading ability, from gifted to dyslexic readers. She takes repeated
recordings of brain activity while a child reads. Her lab is now
beginning to understand characteristics that, when taken together,
represent red flags discernable early enough in brain development (say
in a four year old who has just barely started to understand letters) to
allow for a predictive test and early intervention.
"If we can identify kids that will be dyslexic and help them before
they even have a problem, it is really a big deal," Laszlo said. "I am
excited by the promise this research has to prevent problems for kids
and protect them from experiencing negative life-long effects of reading
A different direction: biometrics
When her individualized brain readings over different time points
caught the attention of bioengineer Zhanpeng Jin, a colleague across
SUNY Binghamton's campus, Laszlo's research jumped in a new, direction.
Jin studies biometrics and thought Laszlo's brain activity readings
could be used as a brain-based, biometric.
Using brain readings as a security measure to prevent identity theft
has several advantages over other biometrics like fingerprints or
retinal scans. For example, they cannot be copied surreptitiously or
taken from someone who is deceased. Brain readings could prove a
game-changer for the security industry. But brain readings can only be
useful if they are extremely reliable; a measure that only recognizes an
individual most of the time would not work as a security device because
people would get locked out of their own devices and offices.
Laszlo, Jin, and their colleague, Maria V. Ruiz-Blondet, decided to
explore whether they could perfect this approach by measuring brain
activity in adults who were either focusing on a recurring, easily
remembered, thought or looking at specific images of different foods,
words, 3-D designs and celebrity faces.
By analyzing brain activity response to visual and thought stimuli,
Laszlo said "We can identify the individual with 100 percent accuracy.
When Zhanpeng first came to me with the idea, I honestly didn't think it
would work. It's amazing."
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