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Two Centers Plan Studies Of Learning Disabilities

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The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has awarded nearly $10 million in grants to Yale University and the Kennedy Institute in Baltimore to launch extensive studies probing the nature of learning disabilities in children.

The grants, announced in the fall, are the first to be made in response to a 1988 Congressional mandate to establish two research centers on learning disabilities.

David B. Gray, who is administering the grants for the national institute, expressed hope that researchers involved in the studies "can find some biological markers for specific learning problems."

Such markers, he said, could flag the types of learning disabilities commonly associated with specific genetic, neurological, or behavioral problems or anomalies. That information could then be used to help educators pinpoint more efficiently the types of educational interventions learning-disabled children need.

"Most schools can't afford to waste money giving the maximum intervention to everybody," Mr. Gray said.

Learning disabilities affect between 5 and 15 percent of all Americans, according to one estimate. Yet the problem is among the least understood of all handicapping conditions.

The largest of the awards--$5 million--was made to the Kennedy Institute. Affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, it is a financially independent treatment, research, and teaching facility dedicated to children with brain disorders.

The Kennedy grant will be used for four separate but interrelated five-year studies. Three of the projects focus on the genetic and biological aspects of learning disabilties.

Researchers will look, for example, at how genes influence the expression of learning disorders, why dyslexia may not, as commonly believed, spring from visual perceptual prob4lems, and whether there are common biological underpinnings to all reading and learning disabilties, said Martha Denckla, the project's principal investigator.

As part of their studies, the Kennedy researchers plan to use magnetic resonance imaging--a technology that yields highly defined images of the brain through the use of magnetic-field variation, rather than radiation--and an extensive battery of other tests.

A fourth project, being conducted by Frank R. Vellutino, professor of educational psychology and statistics at the State University of New York in Albany, is aimed at developing a set of criteria that can be used to identify various types of learning disabilties in young children. Mr. Vellutino will screen 1,800 kindergartners in Albany to distinguish those who may have trouble reading. Half of the group will receive intensive reading lesssons and half will not. All of the children will be followed and tested over four years.

Yale University researchers will focus on the kinds of classification systems used to identify children with learning disabilities. One purpose of that effort will be to determine whether large numbers of children are being mislabeled as learning-disabled.--dv

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