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Dyslexia: Scanning the brain for clues


4 Star


Dyslexia: Scanning the brain for clues

Our Review Summary

This story is the best of the three we reviewed about a study indicating that brain scans may help researchers understand brain structure and function in people who have dyslexia. It refrains from claiming that the work has near-term clinical implications for people who have trouble reading and writing. However, the bulk of the story is made up of personal stories about living with dyslexia, while key features of this research are buried deep in the story or left out entirely. What’s more, the story describes the study participants as “children,” thus leaving readers with the impression that researchers looked at beginning readers, when they actually were studying teenagers who presumably had been dealing with dyslexia for many years. In addition, the story tosses in a discussion of an unrelated study of dyslexia and spatial skills. Even people with advanced reading skills are likely to come away from this story befuddled about the scope, findings and implications of the research.


Why This Matters

Good reading skills are fundamental to educational, social and financial success. Dyslexia is a type of reading disability characterized by difficulties in word recognition, spelling and decoding. Most studies suggest early intervention is important, but little is known about why some children respond better than others. This research suggests that brain scans can provide insight to underlying mechanisms of dyslexia and perhaps help track and refine interventions that could be tailored to individuals. But for readers to understand the value of this study, stories must clearly describe the research and its implications.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

None of the stories we reviewed gave readers sufficient information on the cost of the research scans used in the study. This story includes a comment from a researcher saying that increased use of this type of brain scan would bring the “high cost” down, but it doesn’t provide an estimate of the current cost or any comparison to alternative methods of assessing reading ability or other features of dyslexia.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


We will give this story a satisfactory rating because it portrays this research as providing information for researchers seeking to understand dyslexia, rather than offering important direct benefits to individuals. However, most of the story is about what it is like to live with dyslexia. These anecdotes have little or nothing to do with the research. The list of celebrities who may have or had dyslexia also seems irrelevant and distracting. Then the story tosses in discussion of a study that looked at correlations between dyslexia and spatial skills; again, unrelated to the topic of the primary study reported here. The jumble of extraneous personal tales and other research muddles the point of the story.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


MRI brain scans are generally considered to present little physical risk, so the issue here is really the potential negative effects of the information the test produces. At least the story raises that issue by including comments from parents who worry that this sort of scanning could further stigmatize children who have trouble reading or writing.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


This story fails to point out that the “children” studied were not beginning readers, but teenagers who were already identified as having dyslexia and may have been involved in special reading programs for many years. It also fails to mention several of the caveats and limitations that the researchers noted in their journal article, including the possibility that misclassification of the participants based on their initial testing could affect the results. In other words, rather than actually improving during the study, it is possible some of the teens were actually better readers from the beginning, but just scored low on the baseline tests.

Nevertheless, we rate the story as satisfactory because it appropriately describes this study as helping researchers to understand the disease, rather than evaluating the clinical usefulness of brain scans. Also, one paragraph deep in the story highlights the preliminary nature of the research; specifically that the study included only 25 participants with dyslexia, “which is too small a sample size to prove anything.” It also notes that the study did not look at whether different varieties or reading instruction or other interventions might have had some effect and it includes a comment from an independent expert about the lack of data on instruction or other factors that could influence reading ability. The story would have been better if the alert to the preliminary nature of the study had been near the top, rather than buried near the end.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The story refers to estimates that between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population has dyslexia. Unlike the Reuters story we also reviewed, this story provides a useful definition of dyslexia as “a condition that, broadly speaking, hinders a person’s ability to interpret language.”

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The story does include independent experts. Although it does not discuss conflicts of interest, the authors of the main study declared no conflicts and reported that their study was supported by a number of grants from public agencies and foundations, though the baseline assessment of the participants was supported by a company that markets treatment interventions for people with dyslexia. One troubling point: the story describes one person who claims to have been helped by “training at a learning development center.” If this individual was associated with the company that helped sponsor this research, the story should have disclosed that connection.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The study authors wrote that although standardized tests did not accurately predict changes in reading ability during the study period, “it is possible that there are behavioral measures not included here that may predict outcome.” Indeed, their journal article specifically referred to other research into clinical testing that did appear to predict how children with poor reading skills responded to teaching. The story fails to make clear that the study reported here did not attempt to make a comprehensive comparison of the predictive power of scans and other methods of assessing children with reading problems.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story notes that the type of scan used in this study is not widely available.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story implies that this study is the first to suggest young people with dyslexia use a certain area of the right hemisphere of their brains more than average readers. Actually, the study authors pointed out that their research provides some additional data to support the findings of many other studies of differences between the brains of people with dyslexia and those who read normally.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 7 of 10 Satisfactory


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