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


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."

Alcohol-Producing Gut Bacteria May Harm Livers—Even if You Don't Drink

itakdalee/iStock via Getty Images
itakdalee/iStock via Getty Images

Teetotalers might think their liver is safe from the damaging effects of alcohol consumption, but new research is hinting that even non-drinkers and light drinkers might have cause for concern. It turns out a type of gut bacteria is capable of producing alcohol—and enough of it to potentially cause some pretty serious health consequences, including liver disease.

A study led by Jing Yuan at the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing, China and published in the journal Cell Metabolism offers details. After evaluating a patient with auto-brewery syndrome (ABS), a rare condition brought on by consumption and fermentation of sugary foods that leaves a person with high blood alcohol levels, researchers made an intriguing discovery. Rather than finding fermenting yeast that may have led to the condition, the patient’s stool contained Klebsiella pneumonia, a common gut bacteria capable of producing alcohol. In this subject, K. pneumonia was producing significantly more alcohol than in healthy patients.

The patient also had nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), characterized by fatty deposits in the liver. While many cases of NAFLD are relatively benign, too much fat can become toxic. Examining 43 other subjects with NAFLD, scientists found that that K. pneumonia was both present and potent, pumping out more alcohol than normal in 60 percent of participants with NAFLD. In the control group, a surplus was found in only 6.25 percent.

To further observe a correlation, scientists fed the bacteria to healthy, germ-free mice, who began to see an increase in fat in their livers after only one month. While not conclusive proof that the bacteria prompts NAFLD, it will likely trigger additional research in humans.

It’s not yet known how K. pneumonia acts in concert with the bacterial profile of the gut or what might make someone carrying stronger strains of the bacteria. Luckily, K. pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics. That’s good news for people who might never touch a drink and still find themselves with a damaged liver.

[h/t Live Science]

5 Hilarious Discoveries from the 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Winners

andriano_cz/iStock via Getty Images
andriano_cz/iStock via Getty Images

Each September, the Ig Nobel Prizes (a play on the word ignoble) are given out to scientists who have wowed the world with their eccentric, imaginative achievements. Though the experiments are usually scientifically sound and the results are sometimes truly illuminating, that doesn’t make them any less hilarious. From postal workers’ scrotal temperatures to cube-shaped poop, here are our top five takeaways from this year’s award-winning studies.

1. Left and right scrota often differ in temperature, whether you’re naked or not.

Roger Mieusset and Bourras Bengoudifa were awarded the anatomy prize for testing the scrotum temperatures in clothed and naked men in various positions. They found that in some postal workers, bus drivers, and other clothed civilians, the left scrotum is warmer than the right, while in some naked civilians, the opposite is true. They suggest that this discrepancy may contribute to asymmetry in the shape and size of male external genitalia.

2. 5-year-old children produce about half a liter of saliva per day.

Shigeru Watanabe and his team nabbed the chemistry prize for tracking the eating and sleeping habits of 15 boys and 15 girls to discover that, regardless of gender, they each produce about 500 milliliters of spit per day. Children have lower salivary flow rates than adults, and they also sleep longer (we produce virtually no saliva when we sleep), so it seems like they may generate much less saliva than adults. However, since children also spend more time eating than adults (when the most saliva is produced), the average daily levels are about even—at least, according to one of Watanabe’s previous studies on adult saliva.

3. Scratching an ankle itch feels even better than scratching other itches.

Ghada A. bin Saif, A.D.P. Papoiu, and their colleagues used cowhage (a plant known to make people itchy) to induce itches on the forearms, ankles, and backs of 18 participants, whom they then asked to rate both the intensity of the itch and the pleasure derived from scratching it. Subjects felt ankle and back itches more intensely than those on their forearms, and they also rated ankle and back scratches higher on the pleasure scale. While pleasure levels dropped off for back and forearm itches as they were scratched, the same wasn’t true for ankle itches—participants still rated pleasurability higher even while the itchy feeling subsided. Perhaps because there’s no peace quite like that of scratching a good itch, the scientists won the Ig Nobel peace prize for their work.

4. Elastic intestines help wombats create their famous cubed poop.

In the final 8 percent of a wombat’s intestine, feces transform from a liquid-like state into a series of small, solid cubes. Patricia Yang, David Hu, and their team inflated the intestines of two dead wombats with long balloons to discover that this formation is caused by the elastic quality of the intestinal wall, which stretches at certain angles to form cubes. For solving the mystery, Yang and Hu took home the physics award for the second time—they also won in 2015 for testing the theory that all mammals can empty their bladders in about 21 seconds.

5. Romanian money grows bacteria better than other money.

Habip Gedik and father-and-son pair Timothy and Andreas Voss earned the economics prize by growing drug-resistant bacteria on the euro, U.S. dollar, Canadian dollar, Croatian luna, Romanian leu, Moroccan dirham, and Indian rupee. The Romanian leu was the only one to yield all three types of bacteria tested—Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, and Vancomycin-resistant Enterococci. The Croatian luna produced none, and the other banknotes each produced one. The results suggest that the Romanian leu was most susceptible to bacteria growth because it was the only banknote in the experiment made from polymers rather than textile-based fibers.