New I-LABS Faculty Member: Brain Readiness for Learning to Read

Learning to read—like learning to speak—requires hard work, practice and sophisticated wiring of the brain.

A literate brain must first recognize the visual pattern of letters, convert them into sounds which are combined into words that are then made sense of. Once learned reading happens in the blink of an eye and requires little effort.

"Reading is so effortless that as adults, we can forget how hard it was to learn," said I-LABS' Jason Yeatman, a neuroscientist and an expert in brain development and literacy. "As a literate adult, you can't not read—it occurs automatically when our eyes see a word."

Last fall Yeatman became an assistant professor in the UW Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. He received a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University and first joined I-LABS in 2014 as a postdoctoral researcher with Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS.

The new position makes him the latest faculty member at I-LABS and establishes an exciting new research direction at the Institute.

"We are increasingly personalizing medicine because our bodies are different," Kuhl said. "Jason’s work represents 'personalized neuroscience.' All children’s brains mature at different rates, and timing is everything. Jason’s work uses neural measures to determine when each individual child is ready to read, and this is a huge breakthrough. Jason represents the future of developmental cognitive neuroscience!”

Brain Markers for Reading Readiness

Yeatman's interdisciplinary research examines brain markers that indicate when a child's brain has matured enough to take on the challenging task of learning to read.

Yeatman's earlier work, with Brian Wandell at Stanford, revealed that brain development patterns predict how well children learn to read.

"We've come a long way in understanding the neural substrates that contribute to individual differences in reading abilities " Yeatman said. "The timing of education with brain maturation is essential—the brain must be capable of rewiring itself and of strengthening the pathways that are relevant for reading, and that process differs among children."

It's the myelin-wrapped brain connections, also known as "white matter," that Yeatman is finding play the most essential role in reading acquisition. Yeatman and colleagues published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that by measuring children’s rates of white matter development they could predict their reading abilities.

"Children who enter kindergarten and rapidly acquire the building blocks of literacy show more rapid rates of development in the network of brain connections that are involved in processing language and visual information," Yeatman said.

Pioneering Use of 'qMRI' to Study the Neurobiology of Learning in Children

Yeatman's lab is at the forefront of developing new quantitative brain-imaging techniques that allow them, for the first time, to measure cellular changes in children's brains as they learn to read. These new quantitative magnetic resonance imaging techniques, or qMRI for short, represent a large step forward for the field.

Most MRI scans are typically used as a qualitative measure, like a picture of the brain. Each pixel that makes up the image shows the brain's structure. MRI scans taken in the same person over time can show whether different brain structures are growing or shrinking. But traditional MRIs don't offer any explanation of biology behind the brain changes—that's what makes qMRI different.

"What we're developing is quantitative, meaning that each pixel measures a biological property of brain tissue, and we can track changes, at the millimeter resolution, as a child learns to read," said Yeatman.

He's able to see, for instance, the concentration of the fatty, insulating tissue myelin that wraps connections between nerve cells, making connections faster or slower with thicker or thinner coatings. And a measure called "macromolecular tissue volume" quantifies the volume of cellular structure that makes up a brain region.

"These techniques open a window into the biology of learning allowing us to track how the cellular structure of the brain reorganizes as a child learns to associate sounds with printed symbols" Yeatman said. "It's exciting for the fields of both neuroscience and education to be able to track the mechanisms of learning."

Yeatman just received a grant from the National Science foundation, funding his lab to apply these qMRI measurements in a study of reading interventions in children with dyslexia. This project promises to generate new insights into the mechanisms that underlie learning to read and successfully intervening in children with reading disabilities.

Reading: A Relatively New Challenge for the Brain

Of all the cognitive challenges that human brains take on, reading is the new kid on the block. Humans have, for instance, specific brain structures that evolved to be experts at language and other brain areas for recognizing faces.

"Reading is a relatively recent human invention," Yeatman said, "and the idea of having a literate public is only few hundred years old. That's far too little time to have evolved specialized brain structures for reading."

That means that the brain has to be explicitly taught to read—and that makes reading a particularly interesting scientific question to Yeatman.

"After years of instruction and years of practice the brain develops circuits that are specialized for recognizing printed text," Yeatman said. "I believe that studying how the brain learns to read can be used as a model to understand principals of plasticity, or the brains capacity to reorganize in response to experience."

The 'Crux' of Academic Success

By adulthood, most of us have forgotten how hard it was to learn to read and we may think that it was easier than it actually is, Yeatman said. It may come as a surprise if the little ones in our lives have a hard time with reading.

"I want to understand the biological mechanisms that explain why some children learn to read easily, and others struggle," Yeatman said. “A better understanding of these mechanisms will allow us to develop personalized approaches to education that are tailored and timed to a child’s unique pattern of brain maturation."

Reading is the foundation of learning and is at the "crux" of academic success, he added. Knowing how to read opens the doors to all other scholarly subjects, from math to history and more.

Yeatman's discoveries could ultimately make their way to education practices and help develop a more tailored approach to teaching children to read based on their brain development and targeted remediation programs in children with dyslexia.

Next Steps in the Lab

At I-LABS, Yeatman will continue his use of qMRI, functional MRI and other brain imaging tools to examine brain development in children and how it relates to reading.

Yeatman is now assembling an interdisciplinary research team of neuroscience, education and language and reading experts to work in his lab.

"I want to bring people together to benefit from others' complementary expertise," he said. The research team will also encompass computer scientists and engineers, because a core of Yeatman's work is to develop software and other methods to examine new scientific questions about the brain and how it changes with learning and other experiences.

And, with the faculty appointment at UW Speech and Hearing Sciences, which emphasizes clinical service as part of its mission, Yeatman is looking forward to how his work can make a difference in society.