To find the roots of dyslexia, Boston Children’s coaxes babies into MRI

Gaab MRI Two Crop

Many children with dyslexia aren’t diagnosed until they reach third grade and have shown ongoing difficulty with reading. But by that time, the best window for improving their reading skills through educational intervention has already closed.

“You have to fail. You have to be unable to learn to read over several years before you get a diagnosis,” said Nadine Gaab, a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital. “That has really strong psychological implications, like low self-esteem. Kids think, ‘I’m stupid.’ ”

New research at Children’s, however, shows that kids with a strong family history of dyslexia have noticeable differences in key brain structures from the time they’re infants.

That finding, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex in December, could help change the way educators and parents treat kids with a risk of dyslexia, said Gaab, who co-led the study. “If it’s dyslexia, it’s there early. You’re born with it, and it does not get better if you wait until third grade,” she said.

The research builds off of previous studies that used MRI scans to show that kids with dyslexia risk have differences in regions of their brain at around 5 years old, before they are readers.

In the newest phase, Gaab and her colleagues went even younger, with kids 1 year and younger. They also used an MRI technique that could isolate particular structures in the brain.

In kids who had a parent or older sibling with dyslexia, which gives them a 50 percent chance of having dyslexia themselves, the researchers found noticeable differences in the fibers that connect two key language-processing centers of the brain.

Insight into brain function wasn’t the only useful lesson for the Children’s researchers. They also got really good at coaxing notoriously squirmy infants into a big, loud, intimidating MRI machine, which can only return useful images if the patient lies nearly motionless.

The key, it turns out, is naptime. Parents were told to make their way to the MRI session two hours before the baby’s best naptime, giving them enough cushion to get everything in place before the tykes started nodding off.

“The first 10 or 12 miserably failed,” Gaab said. “We were joking that we got really good at putting other people’s babies to sleep. Not so much ours.”