Learning Leader

Mapping the Brain: Using Neuroimaging to Improve Child Outcomes

CLI’s Brain Research Analysis in Neurodevelopment Lab, or BRAIN Lab, integrates multiple neuroimaging techniques to address research questions about brain behavior and the brain’s response to interventions. Through these images, BRAIN Lab researchers can measure brain activity, mass, and the strength of neural networks known to be important for emotional and cognitive skills. Researchers at the BRAIN Lab are exploring key questions such as:

  • How does brain structure affect reading ability?
  • Does quality of parenting affect brain development?
  • How can we improve the long-term outcomes of children with traumatic brain injury?

Dr. Jenifer Juranek, Director of the BRAIN Lab, uses neuroimaging to study reading difficulties in school-aged children, including dyslexia. Neuroimaging can be particularly useful in the study of reading difficulties because our brains are not specifically wired to read—rather, they are wired to process sounds and visual information, and with explicit instruction, our brains can be programmed to use these skills in tandem to decode written words. Decoding refers to our ability to use knowledge of letter-sound relationships to recognize familiar words and figure out unfamiliar ones. Neuroimaging research shows that struggling readers have less integrity of certain neural pathways that enable word decoding to occur efficiently. Dr. Juranek is a principal investigator in a consortium of researchers known as the Texas Center for Learning Disabilities. The major goals of the consortium have been to develop and evaluate classifications of learning disabilities, evaluate the role of executive function in reading comprehension, provide reading comprehension interventions for students in grades 4 and 5, and finally, Dr. Juranek’s role—to conduct neuroimaging studies in various phases of intervention. One focus of the consortium was studying the brain structure of children struggling with dyslexia, a largely genetic condition characterized by poor word decoding skills. Dr. Juranek found there were significant differences in the thickness of the cerebral cortex in children with dyslexia, as well as less organized neural pathways that help the brain process words. However, there is some neuroimaging evidence that suggests with intervention, dyslexic brains can be rewired and reading outcomes improved.

Dr. Dana DeMaster is interested in the effects of parental responsiveness on the structural development of white matter that connects the prefrontal and limbic brain regions, important for emotional development, learning, and memory. To measure this, Dr. DeMaster employs a technique called a “waiting task.” In this scenario, a parent and toddler (18 to 30 months old) are seated at table, on top of which sits a gift wrapped in enticing, colorful paper. Parents are instructed to complete paperwork at the table, during which time the child is not allowed to touch the gift. Parents are observed in how they support their children in completing this difficult task of waiting to open the gift. Observers measure responsive behaviors such encouraging the child’s patience, verbally distracting the child from the gift, and soothing when the child becomes upset at having to wait. In an initial sample, the study found strong correlations between parental behavior and the structure of the child’s white matter connecting prefrontal and limbic brain regions. These findings add to our growing understanding of how early caregiving shapes children’s brain development. Dr. DeMaster is currently working to expand this study to a larger sample of children.

Dr. Christopher Watson, a post-doctoral fellow with the BRAIN Lab, is interested in the long-term effects on children and adolescents who experience traumatic brain Injury (TBI), and is currently working with children who received their injuries through motor vehicle accidents. Up to 50% of TBI patients are at risk for long-term problems such as attention, memory, impulsivity control, and emotion regulation. Age at injury, severity of injury, and family-related factors such as socio-economic status and emotional support have all been found to be significant factors in long-term outcomes. Of particular concern is TBI early in childhood, as it derails the normal developmental process that builds complex neural connections imperative for cognitive function. Because the brain “controls” cognitive ability and behavior, acquiring detailed images of brain networks has shown recent promise as a method of predicting children’s improvement outcomes after interventions, and even as a resource for recommending specific therapies and rehabilitation.

To learn more about the work of researchers at the BRAIN Lab, check out their recent Lunch & Learn presentation.



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