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Developmental Dyslexia: An Update on Genes, Brains, and Environments

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The science of reading and developmental dyslexia has experienced spectacular advances during the last few years. Five aspects of this research are discussed in the article. (1) The holistic phenomenon of reading is complex. Many lower-level psychological processes (e.g., phonemic awareness, phonological decoding, ability to process stimuli rapidly and automatize this process, memory, ability to recognize words) contribute to a single act of reading. Conceptualizing the complex process of reading through its partly overlapping but partly independent components—which contribute to, but do not fully explain, the holistic process of reading—provides an excellent model for understanding complex hierarchies of higher mental functions. Those who master reading skills successfully and those who have difficulties doing so differ in a wide range of reading-related processes. The central deficit experienced by poor readers appears to be related to phonological processing (a complex hierarchy of functions related to processing phonemes), whereas characteristics of automatization processes seem to moderate the reading outcome for people whose phonological skills are weak. (2) There are new data addressing models of dyslexia in languages other than English. The most fascinating finding is that the model implicating phonological deficit as central to dyslexia, and the lack of ability to automatize as leading to troubled reading, appears to be universal, regardless of the specific language. However, there is an interaction effect between the characteristics of a particular language and the developmental model of dyslexia. In phonologically more difficult languages (e.g., English), the most pronounced weakness appears to occur in phonological processing, whereas in phonologically easier languages (e.g., German), the crucial role in the manifestation of dyslexia is played by the lack of the skills needed to achieve automatization. (3) There is abundant evidence that reading (i.e., any single act of reading as well as reading as a holistic process) is “cooked” by the brain. Although no unified brain map of reading has been developed, some specific areas of the brain have been implicated in different reading-related cognitive processes by different laboratories and on different samples. (4) Indisputable evidence has been accumulated suggesting the involvement of the genome in developmental dyslexia. As of now, specific regions of the genome have been identified as being intimately involved with a number of different reading-related processes. Today the field of developmental dyslexia is the only area of genetic studies of human abilities and disabilities in which linkages to the genome have been robustly replicated in independent laboratories. (5) Finally, evidence suggests that developmental dyslexia might be only one of the manifestations of a deep, underlying, anatomical syndrome. The comorbidity of developmental dyslexia with both internalizing and externalizing behavioral disturbances, as well as with other learning disabilities, underscores the need for wide-ranging cognitive and behavioral approaches in the remediation programs offered to dyslexic children.
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Keywords: Brain mapping; complex phenotypes; developmental dyslexia; environment; genetics; reading ability and disability

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Yale University, New Haven, U.S.A, and Moscow State University, Russia

Publication date: January 1, 2001

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