Brain Prints Reveal Children’s Reading Difficulties

New test uses brain's electrical activity to pinpoint reading challenges early, increasing chances for success in school

It's widely believed that the younger you are, the easier it will be for you to learn a new language, and new research is finding that holds true for sign language as well. University of California, San Diego, psychologist Rain Bosworth says that by five months old, babies are universal language "sponges," attracted to language in their environment, and this includes sign language. Find out more in this Science Nation video. Credit: Science Nation, National Science Foundation

Children who have difficulty learning to read, in addition to being at risk for depression, also can suffer from increased rates of bullying and can experience poorer relationships with their parents and teachers, according to some child development researchers.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), cognitive neuroscientist Sarah Laszlo and her team at Binghamton University are developing a test designed to diagnose reading difficulties early on. And, that’s critical because studies show many methods now used to help struggling readers become less effective after the second grade.

The test is essentially a computer game, played while the child’s brain activity is being monitored by electroencephalography (EEG) that detects electrical activity in the brain. If a child struggles with any of the answers, it shows up in his or her EEG signals. The researchers read the signals and can tell where a child might be having difficulties.

Laszlo’s reading research may also have applications in biometrics, the measurement of people’s physical or behavioral characteristics. Biometrics authentication is a common security measure; an example is using a fingerprint to gain access to a mobile device. Laszlo is collaborating with NSF-funded bioengineer Zhanpeng Jin to investigate whether brain signals are as unique as fingerprints.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1252975, Neural-computational Analysis of Reading (and Reading Impairment) in Individuals, made under NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development program. Another award, #1564046, Brain Hacking: Assessing Psychological and Computational Vulnerabilities in Brain-based Biometrics, is also related to the research.