Reading & Literacy

Even for Late Learners, Starting to Read Changes the Brain Fast

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 14, 2017 1 min read

Learning to read makes deep changes in the brain quickly, even for those who come to reading late, according to a new study in the journal Science Advances.

Falk Huettig of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics led an international team of researchers, who tracked brain activity and changes in previously illiterate Indian adults in the first six months they learned to read. The study participants were learning Devanagari, a written language of India and Nepal that is more alphabetically complex than English.

They found that as people became literate, they developed faster and stronger connections between the occipital lobe—the area associated with vision—and deep parts of the brain stem and thalamus, which are associated with how the brain differentiates important information within a crowded field of vision. Outside of reading, these areas are associated with, for example, recognizing a familiar face in a crowd.

The more closely these areas of the brain synchronized their activity, the faster new readers learned to decode strings of letters as words.

Though the study focused on adults learning to read, Huettig said the results would apply to children as well. “The changes might be bigger in children—and perhaps also faster—but this has not been tested yet,” Huettig said. “What is quite amazing is that even adult brains who tend to show less plasticity [the ability to form new connections] than the brains of children can change so substantially even in evolutionarily old sub-cortical parts.”

Chart: Areas of the brain associated with vision connect in new ways when people learn to read. Source: Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive Brain Sciences

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.