STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Scientists can now look at a child's brain as they learn. Will it change education?

from the supporting materials of "Development of white matter and reading skills," published in PNAS.

I've been kind of obsessed with neuroscience lately. The study of our brains has made some amazing leaps in the past decade or so, particularly when it comes to how we understand our children's minds. Behind many of those leaps have been advances in brain scans. Scientists have been able to use non-invasive magnetic resonance imaging to study adult brains for some time. But young kids were just too squirmy for the most detailed types of scans. Now, though, scientists are starting to figure out ways to see what's going on in developing brains, regardless of the squirms.

And this is really, really new science. Like, if the science were a child, it would only be a toddler. In 2010, neuroscientists at the University of Washington opened what they say is the first brain imaging center in the world that's focused exclusively on kids. Scientists there can now watch live as neurons fire away in the mind of an awake infant. The University of Michigan has slightly different, and less precise, brain imaging for infants. But the technology still allows researchers to see into infants brains to discover how things work in there. 

This new imaging technology is leading to a revolution in our understanding of how brains develop. And what we ultimately learn could shape education and opportunity for the next century. 

"We'd really like to find a way of predicting who's going to struggle with reading before they start struggling," says Stanford neuroscientist Jason Yeatman.

Take, for example, a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A team of scientists led by Jason Yeatman at Stanford University tested reading skills over a three-year period for kids aged 7 - 12. They also did brain scans for the kids. What they found is that you could predict which kids were better readers based on the development of their "white-matter tracts." These tracts are bundles of nerve fibers that connect distant parts of the brain. As Nature News reported, the tracts are important because: 

Literacy requires the integration of activity in brain areas involved in vision, hearing and language. These areas are distributed throughout the brain, so efficient communication between them is essential for proficient reading.

What Yeatman and his colleagues found is that the tracts develop at different times for different kids. The precise timing of when the tracts form, and when they undergo "pruning" could affect how children learn to read. And if we know when these things are happening in each child's brain, we might be able to help more of them learn to read. From Nature News: 

Yeatman says that individual children might benefit from reading lessons that are tailored to their patterns of brain development. In the future, it may be possible to determine exactly when pruning is taking place - children may find it easiest to learn to read at this stage of development, when there is greater potential for remodeling in the brain. "We'd really like to find a way of predicting who's going to struggle with reading before they start struggling," he says.

Of course, for the most vulnerable kids, it's hard enough to be able to pay for new books and computers. Can you imagine if school principals asked for a brain scanner? 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.