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When Does Dyslexia Develop?

For more than 15 years, Nadine Gaab’s lab has been unlocking secrets of how young brains develop, with an emphasis on non-apparent disabilities, or physical or mental conditions that are not immediately obvious to others. 

“It is very challenging and rewarding at the same time,” said Gaab, associate professor of education. “The best way to examine how a child learns is to follow them closely while they are learning and to look at all aspects of their learning, including brain development, behavior, genetics, and environment.”

The Gaab Lab, based at the Graduate School of Education since 2021, focuses on atypical learning trajectories, particularly those of children with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability. A key question the lab is tackling is pinpointing when brain characteristics associated with dyslexia manifest.

Scientists have long known that people who struggle with reading often show atypical brain structure and function. “The question was, ‘Is that development in response to struggling every day in school, or is it something that develops before their first day of kindergarten?’ That’s a really important question for policy,” she said.

If everyone comes to kindergarten with a ‘clean slate’ brain and then changes in response to instruction, then you have to monitor them after they start school and try to catch kids who fall off the bandwagon. But if you can show that some of these atypical brain developments happen before the first day of kindergarten, you should find them before they start and intervene in response so that they will never struggle.”

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