Speaking of reading… this story misreads the description of who was in a study of dyslexia and what the researchers reported. Teenagers who had dyslexia are described as being unable to read at all. The story claims that brain scans were able to predict “which students would learn to read,” when what researchers actually reported was that the scans correlated with reading improvement.
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 research, stories must accurately describe the problem and how it was studied.
There is no discussion of the cost of these brain scans, which is particularly troubling because sophisticated imaging of the brain and its function is an expensive diagnostic tool. Applying these sophisticated tests to all children with reading problems would incur massive costs.
This story reports that the researcher “found children who had this unusual brain activity were more likely to have learned to read than other dyslexics.” That phrase is a complete misstatement of the changes in reading ability measured in this study.
There is no discussion of harms. Even if MRI scans are unlikely to present any significant physical hazard, test results have consequences. The CNN story we also reviewed included a discussion of stigma or other negative effects. All stories about tests should consider what the effects of the resulting information may be.
The story confuses reading improvement with the ability to read at all, thus giving readers a false picture of the study conclusions. This story does accurately describe the participants as teenagers, unlike other stories that left readers with the impression that the researchers studied much younger children who were just beginning to learn to read. We are not provided with any information about interventions that may or may not have occurred in the intervening 2 ½ years or anything about the children enrolled and possible important differences at baseline.
This story confuses reading difficulties with an inability to read at all. The headline (Brain scans predict which dyslexics will read) is just plain wrong. The story reports that, “About one-fifth of people with severe dyslexia learn to read.” What the study authors actually wrote was, “Approximately one-fifth of individuals with developmental dyslexia manage to compensate for their underlying learning difficulties and develop adequate reading skills by the time they reach adulthood.” The journal news release simplified that line to “About 20% of dyslexic children acquire improved reading skills by the time they reach adulthood.” The story bungles the description of the people in the study and the severity of their reading problems.
The only source other than the lead author is the director of the agency that helped fund this study. The story does note the relationship, but a truly independent source should have been included.
The story does not discuss other ways of assessing reading ability or the potential for improvement among people with dyslexia.
Functional MRI and Diffusion Tensor MRI are research tools not routinely available in community hospitals and not routinely used in clinical practice. The story does not provide any information on their availability.
There is no reference to the background of other studies that have indicated possible links between brain function and reading ability in people who have dyslexia.
All of the quotes used in this story appear to be taken from news releases issued by the National Institutes of Health and Stanford University. The story identifies some (but not all) of the quotes as coming from statements, but this reliance on on news releases is not acceptable. However, when considering the gross errors in how this story described the study, its participants and outcomes, you could say the story might have been better if it had relied on the releases even more.
Stanford School of Medicine release: http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2010/december/dyslexia.html
NIH release: http://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/121610-dyslexia-brain-scans.cfm