New research from the University of Cambridge (UK) has confirmed that severe learning and cognitive difficulties are the result of poor connectivity between parts of the brain, and do not arise from specific brain regions, as some scientists previously thought.
Children who are struggling at school sometimes receive a formal diagnosis of a specific learning difficulty or disability. The diagnosis may be dyslexia, dyscalculia, developmental language disorder, ADHD, dyspraxia, or autism spectrum disorder, or a combination of these.
The research team’s work with almost 500 children used concluded that there are no specific brain areas that cause these difficulties.
They found children’s brains were organised around hubs, like an efficient traffic system. Children with poorly connected hubs – like a train station with few or poor connections – had widespread and severe cognitive problems.
Dr Duncan Astle, senior author on the study, said, “Scientists have argued for decades that there are specific brain regions that predict having a particular learning disorder or difficulty, but we’ve shown that this isn’t the case.”
“It’s much more important to consider how these brain areas are connected – specifically, whether they are connected via hubs. The severity of learning difficulties was strongly associated with the connectedness of these hubs, because they play a key role in sharing information between brain areas.”
Dr Astle said one implication of this research is that interventions should be less reliant on diagnostic labels.
“Receiving a diagnosis is important for families. It can give professional recognition for a child’s difficulties and open the door to specialist support. But in terms of specific interventions, for example from the child’s teachers, they can be a distraction.”
“It’s better to look at their areas of cognitive difficulties and how these can be supported, for example using specific interventions to improve listening skills or language competencies, or at interventions that would be good for the whole class, like how to how to reduce working memory demands during learning.”