Neuroscience and Special Education

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Neuroscience and Special Education

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Neuroscience and Special Education

inForum – An analysis of a critical issue in special education

by Eve Müller, Ph.D.
July 2011

The purpose of this document is to provide a brief overview of how links are being developed between the rapidly expanding field of neuroscience and the practice of special education. The first part of the document introduces definitions and terminology, provides an overview of how findings from neuroscience are being applied to the field of special education, describes outcomes from the limited research bridging the two disciplines and discusses how institutions of higher education (IHEs) and other organizations are creating interdisciplinary links between neuroscience and education/special education. The second part of the document profiles three programs currently serving students with disabilities that base their curriculum in part on findings from the field of neuroscience. Project Forum at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) completed this document as part of its cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).


Neuroscience draws from the field of neurology, psychology, physiology and biology (Goswami, 2008). Perhaps most relevant to the field of education is the development of brain “imaging” techniques, including positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). These tools, while limited in their diagnostic and predictive capabilities, hold promise for identifying which parts of the brain are implicated during which types of cognitive tasks. In terms of special education, the use of brain imaging allows comparison of typical with atypical patterns of neural activity.

Although experts use a wide array of terms including “neuroscience and education” (Bruer, 1997), “neurolearning” (Bruer, 2003), “educational neuroscience” (Varma, McCandliss, & Schwartz, 2008), “cognitive neuroscience” (Goswami, 2008) and “brain-based education” (Jensen, 2008), Howard-Jones (2008) points out that regardless of the term used, all refer to a common goal of linking the scientific understanding of how the brain functions (including how the brain learns) to an understanding of educational best practices. Jensen (2008) posits that “Brain-based education is about the professionalism of knowing why one strategy is used instead of another. The science is based on what we know about how our brain works” (p.409).

Applying Neuroscience to the Field of Special Education

Bruer (1997) believes that thoughtful application of findings from cognitive neuroscience will likely be most relevant to the education of special populations, including individuals with disabilities. He cites as examples the fact that cognitive neuroscience helps us understand how instruction supports the acquisition of “culturally transmitted skills” such as literacy and numeracy, and that cognitive psychology combined with brain imaging allows us to see how learning and instruction alter the brain’s wiring. This opens the possibility of comparing learning-related changes in typical and atypical populations. Bruer suggests that comparative studies will provide insight not only into the nature of specific learning disabilities, but also into the compensatory strategies and alternate neural pathways available to individuals with learning disabilities—insights that can lead to better, more targeted instructional interventions.

One example of how brain-based studies may one day help diagnose and remediate specific learning disabilities is the use of brain imaging to better understand dyslexia. Experts now realize that not all struggling readers are suffering from the same problem and according to Katzir and Pare-Blagoev (2006), “Neuroscience holds the promise of differentiating among different etiologies that exhibit similar outcomes” (p. 59). In other words, brain imaging may help us distinguish between students with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), cognitive impairments and limited language exposure. This kind of information could help teachers determine which brains would respond best to which therapies.

Another promising link between neuroscience and special education has to do with “biomarkers.” These neural indicators, visible through brain imaging, can sometimes show the presence of cognitive or learning impairments prior to the appearance of any behavioral symptoms (Goswami, 2008). Research on biomarkers is currently being conducted on specific language impairment, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and learning disabilities, including dyslexia and dyscalculia. Goswami (2008) cautions, however, that while early identification can benefit children, premature diagnoses can potentially lead to discrimination and/or stigmatization.