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Learning to Read as an Adult Changes Deep Regions of the Brain

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In the evolutionary history of humans, reading and writing are relatively new functions. As a result, in order to read written language, human brains have had to recruit and adapt parts of the visual system to interface with language centers. This is a process researchers have long believed occurred primarily in the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain. But in a new study where illiterate people in their thirties were trained to read over six months, researchers have discovered that reading actually activates much deeper brain structures as well, opening doors to a better understanding of how we learn, and possible new interventions for dyslexia. Their results were recently published in the journal Science Advances.

In order to learn to read, "a kind of recycling process has to take place in the brain," Falk Huettig, one of the collaborating researchers at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, tells Mental Floss by email. "Areas evolved for the recognition of complex objects, such as faces, become engaged in translating letters into language.”

To study this process in the brain, researchers selected participants from India, where the literacy rate is about 63 percent, a rate influenced by poverty, which limits educational access, especially for girls and women. Most of the participants in this study were women in their thirties who came into the study unable to read a single word.

They divided the participants into a group that received reading training intervention and a control group that was not trained. Both groups underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans before and after the six-month study. Some participants were excluded due to incomplete scanning sessions, leaving a total of 30 participants in the final analysis.

They were taught to read Devanagari, the script upon which Hindi and some other languages of South Asia are based. It's an alpha-syllabic script composed of complex characters that describe whole syllables or words.

The instructor was a professional teacher who followed the locally established method of reading instruction. During the first month of instruction, the participants first were taught to read and write 46 primary Devanagari characters simultaneously. After learning the letters and reading single words, they were taught two-syllable words. In all, they studied approximately 200 words in the first month.

In the second month, the participants were then taught to read and write simple sentences, and in the third month, they learned more complex, three-syllable words. Finally, in the second half of the program, participants learned some basic grammar rules. "For example, the participants learned about the differences between nouns, pronouns, verbs, proverbs, and adjectives, and also about basic rules of tense and gender," Huettig says.

Within six months, participants who could read between zero and eight words even before the training had reached a first-grade level of reading, according to Huettig. "This process was quite remarkable," Huettig says. "Learning to read is quite a complex skill, as arbitrary script characters must be mapped onto the corresponding units of spoken language."

When the researchers looked at the brain scans taken before and after the six-month training, Huettig says they expected to simply replicate previous findings: that changes are limited to the cortex, which is known to adapt quickly to new challenges.

What they didn't expect was to see changes in deeper parts of the brain. "We observed that the learning process leads to a reorganization that extends to deep brain structures in the thalamus and the brainstem." More specifically, learning to read had an impact on a part of the brainstem called the superior colliculus as well as the pulivinar, located in the thalamus, which "adapt the timing of their activity patterns to those of the visual cortex," Heuttig explains.

These deep brain structures help the visual cortex filter important information from the flood of visual input—even before we consciously perceive it. "It seems that these brain systems increasingly fine-tune their communication as learners become more and more proficient in reading," he says.

In essence, the more these participants read, the better they became at it. The research also revealed that the adult brain is more adaptable than previously understood. "Even learning to read in your thirties profoundly transforms brain networks," Huettig says. "The adult brain is remarkably flexible to adapt to new challenges."

Even more promising, these results shed new light on a possible cause of dyslexia, a language-processing disorder, which researchers have long attributed to dysfunctions of the thalamus. Since just a few months of reading training can modify the thalamus, Huettig says, "it could also be that affected people show different brain activity in the thalamus, just because their visual system is less well-trained than that of experienced readers."

Huettig feels that the social implications of this kind of research are huge, both for people effected by dyslexia as well as the hundreds of millions of adults who are completely or functionally illiterate around the world. Huettig says the new findings could help "put together literacy programs that have the best chance of succeeding to help these people."

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Pop Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson Recruits George R.R. Martin to Work on His New Video Game
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George R.R. Martin has been keeping busy with the latest installment of his Song of Ice and Fire series, but that doesn’t mean he has no time for side projects. As The Daily Beast reports, the fantasy author is taking a departure from novel-writing to work on a video game helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

DeGrasse Tyson’s game, titled Space Odyssey, is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. He envisions an interactive, desktop experience that will allow players to create and explore their own planets while learning about physics at the same time. To do this correctly, he and his team are working with some of the brightest minds in science like Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu. The list of collaborators also includes a few unexpected names—like Martin, the man who gave us Game of Thrones.

Though Martin has more experience writing about dragons in Westeros than robots in outer space, deGrasse Tyson believes his world-building skills will be essential to the project. “For me [with] Game of Thrones ... I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent,” deGrasse Tyson told The Daily Beast. “Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.’”

Other giants from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, including Neil Gaiman and Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel's Wolverine character), have signed on to help with that same part of the process. The campaign for Space Odyssey has until Saturday, July 29 to reach its $314,159 funding goal—of which it has already raised more than $278,000. If the video game gets completed, you can expect it to be the nerdiest Neil deGrasse Tyson project since his audiobook with LeVar Burton.

[h/t The Daily Beast]

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Space
Flying Telescopes Will Watch the Total Solar Eclipse from the Air

If you've ever stood on the tips of your toes to reach something on a high shelf, you get it: Sometimes a little extra height makes all the difference. Although in this case, we're talking miles, not inches, as scientists are sending telescopes up on airplanes to monitor conditions on the Sun and Mercury during the upcoming total eclipse.

Weather permitting, the Great American Eclipse (as some are calling it) will be at least partially visible from anywhere in the continental U.S. on August 21. It will be the first time an eclipse has been so widely visible in the U.S. since 1918 and represents an incredible opportunity not only for amateur sky-watchers but also for scientists from coast to coast.

But why settle for gawking from the ground when there's an even better view up in the sky?

Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have announced plans to mount monitoring equipment on NASA research planes. The telescopes, which contain super-sensitive, high-speed, and infrared cameras, will rise 50,000 feet (about 9.5 miles) above the Earth's surface to sneak a very special peek at the goings-on in our Sun and its nearest planetary buddy.

Gaining altitude will not only bring the instruments closer to their targets but should also help them avoid the meteorological chaos down below.

"Being above the weather guarantees perfect observing conditions, while being above more than 90 percent of Earth's atmosphere gives us much better image quality than on the ground," SwRI co-investigator Constantine Tsang said in a statement. "This mobile platform also allows us to chase the eclipse shadow, giving us over seven minutes of totality between the two planes, compared to just two minutes and 40 seconds for a stationary observer on the ground."

The darkness of that shadow will blot out much of the Sun's overpowering daily brightness, giving researchers a glimpse at rarely seen solar emissions.

"By looking for high-speed motion in the solar corona, we hope to understand what makes it so hot," senior investigator Amir Caspi said. "It's millions of degrees Celsius—hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below. In addition, the corona is one of the major sources of electromagnetic storms here at Earth. These phenomena damage satellites, cause power grid blackouts, and disrupt communication and GPS signals, so it's important to better understand them."

The temporary blackout will also create fine conditions for peeping at Mercury's night side. Tsang says, "How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury's soil, down to depths of about a few centimeters—something that has never been measured before."

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