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Paying attention to reading: The neurobiology of reading and dyslexia

  • Sally E. Shaywitz (a1) and Bennett A. Shaywitz (a1)

Extraordinary progress in functional brain imaging, primarily advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging, now allows scientists to understand the neural systems serving reading and how these systems differ in dyslexic readers. Scientists now speak of the neural signature of dyslexia, a singular achievement that for the first time has made what was previously a hidden disability, now visible. Paralleling this achievement in understanding the neurobiology of dyslexia, progress in the identification and treatment of dyslexia now offers the hope of identifying children at risk for dyslexia at a very young age and providing evidence-based, effective interventions. Despite these advances, for many dyslexic readers, becoming a skilled, automatic reader remains elusive, in great part because though children with dyslexia can be taught to decode words, teaching children to read fluently and automatically represents the next frontier in research on dyslexia. We suggest that to break through this “fluency” barrier, investigators will need to reexamine the more than 20-year-old central dogma in reading research: the generation of the phonological code from print is modular, that is, automatic and not attention demanding, and not requiring any other cognitive process. Recent findings now present a competing view: other cognitive processes are involved in reading, particularly attentional mechanisms, and that disruption of these attentional mechanisms play a causal role in reading difficulties. Recognition of the role of attentional mechanisms in reading now offer potentially new strategies for interventions in dyslexia. In particular, the use of pharmacotherapeutic agents affecting attentional mechanisms not only may provide a window into the neurochemical mechanisms underlying dyslexia but also may offer a potential adjunct treatment for teaching dyslexic readers to read fluently and automatically. Preliminary studies suggest that agents traditionally used to treat disorders of attention, particularly attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, may prove to be an effective adjunct to improving reading in dyslexic students.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Sally Shaywitz, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University School of Medicine, 333 Cedar Street, New Haven, CT 06510; E-mail:
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This work was supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P50 HD25802, RO1 HD046171, R01 HD057655).

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Development and Psychopathology
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