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Learning Difficulties Are Related to Overall Brain Connectivity Rather than Specific Brain Regions

And They Need to Addressed by the Cognitive Skills Involved, Not by a Label


Many scientists, learning specialists and educators have long believed that it should be possible to “see” learning difficulties in specific parts of the brain with the right kind of imaging. A new study in the April 6, 2020 Issue of Current Biology dispels that belief. In fact, the overall connectivity and organization of the brain are what seem to be the most important. Here’s what we take from the study’s report:

  1. The study found that brain differences did not map onto any labels the children had been given. Children who were referred to participate in the study had diagnoses of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), SLD (Specific Learning Disability), dyspraxia and others. Some children in the study struggled with learning but didn’t have a specific diagnosis. Differences in specific parts of the brain did not correlate with those labels.
  1. Children’s brains (and adult brains, for that matter) have hubs or networks of connections. How well connected the hubs are predicts how learning happens. Children with well-connected hubs had either a specific learning problem or an absence of learning issues. Children with poorly connected hubs had widespread and moderate to severe learning problems, but not associated with a specific brain area.
  1. The researchers explained that they believe the hubs play a key role in sharing information between brain areas and overall brain efficiency.
  1. Labels are generally of little in helping children than a more transdiagnostic approach, focused on cognitive processes. When it comes to teachers providing supports and interventions, the labels can actually be a distraction. “It’s better to look at their areas of cognitive difficulties and how these can be supported,” the researcher said.

The research clarifies why labels can be so misleading and why teachers so often feel unsure about what do to support children with a label, when children with the same label can be struggling with very different cognitive learning skills.  So, for example, knowing that a student has working memory issues or visual-spatial processing issues or phonemic awareness issues or processing speed issues, is more important and more amenable to intervention.

The research also supports what we at BrainWare Learning company have long believed to be a core tenet of cognitive training — the need for cognitive processes to be connected and work accurately and efficiently together.

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