We know from watching children that learning to read is difficult work requiring diligence and persistence. It is consistent and repeated effort like this that causes changes in the brain when we learn something new.
In a recent study, researchers traveled to a remote town in northern India to teach reading to women who were completely illiterate. Before and after the learning process, they underwent brain scans to analyze change in several neurological structures.
One finding was that neuroplasticity is quite a bit stronger in adults than previously expected. Another was which areas of the brain undergo change as they learn. While synaptogenesis in adults has been identified previously in the hippocampus, this study was the first to recognize it in other structures, as well.
Change was found in the thalamus, the brain stem and also the cortex. The job of the thalamus is to act as a way station for sensory input. By integrating stimuli from all of our senses (except for smell), the thalamus filters information and helps the cortex to react more efficiently. Particularly important for reading is the integration of sound and vision since reading involves making a sound-symbol connection (the sound ‘bbb‘ is associated with the letter ‘b’). Processing in the thalamus improves reading through faster coordination between perception and sound-symbol connection and recognition.
The beauty of this study is in its hopefulness. We know that children’s brains are quite plastic and we suspected that this ability to change slowed as we age. But these women proved that adult brains are, as described by the lead author Falk Heuttig, “still very flexible and adaptable for the learning of new skills. The extent in which this is possible was quite surprising.”
Conducting the study this way enabled the researchers to further examine neuroplasticity, and to learn more about how the brain reads. It could lead to deeper insights into disorders like dyslexia. Indeed, in previous studies, his group found that the thalamus functioned differently in proficient readers compared to those with dyslexia. But in both groups, the more one reads, the better the reading experience. All thanks to neuroplasticity.
Huettig summarized his findings by saying that “everybody should be encouraged to read as much as possible, even if it’s a challenge.”