Current Directions in Learning Disabilities Research

Updates from NICHD:
Current Directions in Learning
Disabilities Research
Brett Miller, PhD
Program Director
Reading, Writing, & Related LD Program
Updates on LD research at NICHD
• Brief background on NICHD and interest in
learning disabilities
• Highlights of new and continuing initiatives at
• Recent findings
How does learning disabilities’
research fit into the mission of the
National Institutes of Health?
National Institutes of Health
World’s largest
supporter of
behavioral, and
social science
and training.
~$31 Billion budget
80+% of budget goes
to grantees
NICHD is 1 of the 27
ICs at NIH
Mission of NICHD:
Where do learning disabilities fit in?
• Ensure that every person is born healthy and wanted
• Women suffer no harmful effects from reproductive processes
• All children have the chance to achieve their full
potential for healthy and productive lives, free from
disease or disability
• Ensure the health, productivity, independence, and
well-being of all people through optimal rehabilitation.
Learning Disabilities Team effort at the NICHD
• James Griffin
▫ Program Director for Early Learning and School Readiness
• Kathy Mann Koepke
▫ Program Director for the Math & Science, Cognition & Learning:
Development and Disorders
• Peggy McCardle
▫ Program Director for Language, Bilingualism & Biliteracy
▫ Branch Chief for Child Development and Behavior Branch (CDBB)
• Brett Miller
▫ Program Director for Reading, Writing and Related Learning Disabilities
Basic Questions of
Interest to CDBB
• How do individuals learn/develop
reading, writing, and math skills?
• What goes wrong when they don’t?
• What can we do about it? (Prevention
and remediation)
Why study individuals with and without
learning disabilities?
• Foundational research on human learning and learning
disabilities is an integral part of child development and health.
• Learners who do not struggle help us understand how a
particular skill usually develops
▫ This is critical context for understanding research results when
working with struggling learners or those with a disability
• Insufficient to study only one group. We need to understand the
needs of all learners regardless of disability or age.
What’s been happening at
• Continued focus on reading
• Enhanced focus on writing and mathematics
• Enhanced focus on historically underserved
• Integrating career development into Centers
and Hubs
• Moving to tackle historically challenging
issues for field
Learning Disabilities Research Centers:
• These centers form the cornerstone of our LD
research activities at NICHD
▫ Basic and translational (intervention) science
▫ Transdisciplinary approach to examining core
issues related to learning disabilities (e.g.,
• Historically focused on reading (but
• Recompeted in 2011: 4 awards made in fall 2011
(1 new center and 3 renewed)
How has the program evolved?
• Enhanced focus on writing, reading comprehension, and
relation of executive function skills to literacy development
• Enhanced focus on career development and dissemination
• Thematic with broader efforts to integrate learning disabilities
efforts within branch (e.g., math)
• Critically, shows ongoing commitment to topic and continues
thematic work on core issues related to etiology, classification
and identification, and remediation of learning disabilities
• IDA symposium in 2012 serve as capstone for previous
funding round
Awards: New and Renewing
• Renewing:
▫ University of Colorado – Richard Olson
▫ Florida State University – Richard Wagner
▫ University of Houston – Jack Fletcher
• New:
▫ University of Washington – Virginia Berninger
Brief description of Centers’ Foci
• University of Colorado (Richard Olson)
▫ Examining genetic and environmental factors that
underlie reading and writing disabilities as well as
 E.g., twin studies
• Florida State University (Richard Wagner)
▫ Research on classification models for reading
▫ Intervention efforts on reading & writing
▫ Twin study --- examining the interplay of genes
and environment
Brief description of Centers’ Foci
• University of Houston (Jack Fletcher)
▫ Focus on definitional and measurement issues in
learning disabilities
▫ Intervention for individuals with reading
comprehension problems
▫ Neurobiological investigation of response to
• University of Washington (Virginia Berninger)
▫ Focus on writing and broader literacy and oral
language skill development
▫ Includes intervention, neurobiological, and
genetics research
Learning Disabilities Research Hubs
• Designed to complement the LDRCs
• NICHD’s first systematic effort to look in an
integrative, cross-programmatic fashion at LD
impacting reading, writing, and math
▫ Inherently, broader by design
• Tackling understudied topics and populations
▫ Willing to tolerate risk
▫ Required focus on understudied topic and/or
understudied population
• Integrated mentored opportunity for researchers
▫ Intended to help seed field
What to expect?
• Anticipate 2-3 ‘Hubs’
• Work to developed systematic and
complementary interactions with LDRCs
Sample of recent findings coming
from NICHD’s investments
Approximate Number System (ANS)
• System that represents the approximate magnitude
of items
▫ In humans, this is 1, 2, 3, or more than 3 objects
• Present at birth
▫ Can show the ANS shortly after birth
• Foundational to later math skill acquisition
▫ Differences in an adolescents approximation abilities
predict math performance
▫ Also retrospectively correlates with performance as far
back as kindergarten
Hoeft and Colleagues (2010)
• Asked whether brain measures can predict later
reading performance of those individuals with
• Used fMRI, DTI and behavioral tests for early
adolescents and then conducted behavioral test
2.5 years later
• Tried to predict the adolescents performance 2.5
years later with initial data at time 1
Hoeft and colleagues continued
• Individuals with dyslexia who read relatively well
showed greater activation in the right hemisphere (initial
visit) and stronger connectivity
▫ Inferior frontal gyrus (fMRI results)
▫ Superior longitudinal fasciulus (DTI results)
• More diffuse activation in the left hemisphere
• Remarkably, researchers were able to predict which
individuals with dyslexia would be able to compensate
for their challenges prospectively (2.5 years later)
▫ Over 90% accuracy using fMRI and DTI data
Last Reflections
• Integrative study of learning disabilities
• Our focus is literacy and math
• Enhanced emphasis on understudied
• Balanced focus on challenging and understudied
Brett Miller
[email protected]

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