If you don’t personally live with dyslexia, it’s likely you know someone who does. What was once a largely misunderstood condition is now recognized as being a true neurological disability, and a recent study took this understanding one step further. The scientists used an fMRI scan to look inside the brains of dyslexics. What they discovered is fascinating and could potentially be used to develop more effective ways to help struggling readers.

Dyslexia is a neurological reading disability. It's currently the most commonly diagnosed learning disability in the United States, but the condition is overall more common in English-speaking individuals than those who speak other languages. Dyslexia can affect a person’s ability to read, write, spell, and in more rare cases, speak. The learning condition is completely disconnected from intelligence and is instead a reflection of one’s difficulty with processing and interpreting information.

Although the condition is recognized, without a way to observe how the dyslexic’s brain works, it could never be fully understood. In an effort to find the root of this condition, a team of Yale researchers conducted a whole-brain functional connectivity analysis of dyslexia using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). According to the press release, the study consisted of 75 recruited children and 104 adults.

From comparing the results of children and adults with dyslexia to those without the condition, researchers found that dyslexic readers’ decreased connectivity in some areas and increased connectivity in others was consistent with many shared characteristics of those with the disability. "Compared to typical readers, dyslexic readers had weaker connections between areas that process visual information and areas that control attention, suggesting that individuals with dyslexia are less able to focus on printed words," explained Ph.D. student Emily Finn, one of the researchers involved in the study, in a recent press release.

Results also revealed that the connectivity to brain regions related to phonology in dyslexic readers remained intact. This may explain why so many of those with the disability continue to “sound out words” well into adulthood and never master automatic visual-based strategies for word recognition, the press release explained.

Currently, many children with learning disabilities require special accommodations in order to help them excel scholastically. These consist of aids providing audio tapes, large print words, and reducing the number of words on a page. The study’s researchers hope that their results will help to develop better interventions for struggling readers and give them all the tool and aid to help level the learning playing field.

Source: Finn ES, Shen X, Holahan JM, et al. Disruption of Functional Networks in Dyslexia: A Whole Brain Data-Driven Analysis of Connectivity. Biological Psychiatry. 2014.