Interview: Studying Dyslexia

Megumi Sano

    I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Guinevere Eden, Director of the Center for Study of Learning and full Professor at the Department of Pediatrics at Georgetown University Medical Center and previous President of the International Dyslexia Association. Dr. Eden talks about how she came to study dyslexia and the major role of technology in her research. She also offers her thoughts on the importance of translating research into practice.


Megumi Sano (MS): “What questions are you trying to answer in your research?”

Guinevere Eden, D.Phil. (GE): “We use non-invasive brain imaging technology (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, fMRI) to study the brain-bases for reading and the reading disability developmental dyslexia. One goal is to understand why, in addition to reading difficulties, children with dyslexia exhibit other behavioral manifestations, in areas such as visual processing or motor control. We use the information from our neuroimaging studies to distinguish those brain differences that can be attributed to dyslexia directly, from those that are the consequence of poor reading experience. A second goal is to understand the neural correlates of successful reading intervention (i.e. intensive tutoring of reading, phonological and orthographic processing) and to use this information to understand which brain areas are used when children and adults with dyslexia make gains in reading. Our third goal is to expand this work to the area of math disability (dyscalculia), which also presents a barrier to academic success and which often co-occurs with dyslexia.”


MS: “How did you become interested in this subject and specifically in neuroscience?”

GE: “I always liked biology, and I was fortunate to have wonderful biology teachers, who made it even more fun. I was not, however, comfortable working with animals, which many physiologists do, of course. So I was lucky in that I was at the right place at the right time during my postdoctoral training and to have access to MRI to study humans and follow up on the behavioral work that I did as a graduate student. I also want to mention that I was lucky in that whilst I was doing my DPhil (PhD) in Oxford, I had the opportunity to visit a lab in North Carolina many times for an extended time. I collected data there which became the focus of my thesis work, but more importantly, I received additional training from investigators with a neuropsychology background and I experienced a very different working environment to the one I was used to in the UK. This helped me not only in my science, but also in navigating future decisions and career-choices. Two things that attracted me to the US were role model women scientists and strong advocacy efforts around learning disabilities. These are still important aspects of my work and how I came into this field.”

MS: “What is your educational background? Were there any pivotal moments that changed your career path?”

GE: “I did the International Baccalaureate at a Sixth Form College in Oxford (St. Clare’s Hall), took a gap year, and then went on to get a BS in Physiology from University College London and a DPhil in Physiology from Oxford University. Then I left for the US with one suitcase and all intentions to return to the UK after training as a postdoctoral Fogarty Fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, USA. During that time I learned about brain imaging and instead of returning to the UK, where there were only few brain imaging labs, I stayed in the Washington DC Metropolitan area and started a faculty position at Georgetown University. I have been there ever since (20 years).


“There were two important career choices for me. The first was the postdoctoral training. Do I stay in research or go into industry? My parents had a company that produced medical equipment, but I opted to stay in research. And then where? I chose to go to the US for a postdoctoral training, but since I was not planning to stay for more than a few years, it was not a difficult decision to make. So it was the right choice and as fate would have it, it just so happened that it was the time fMRI has become available and presented the perfect research tool by which to study reading and dyslexia (which cannot be studied in animal models). The second was the decision to remain in the US and go to Georgetown University for my first faculty position. At the time I was torn between staying in the US and returning to the UK. Georgetown University offered many advantages: a research dedicated MRI system and a very supportive environment for the research; a geographical location with several schools specializing in students with dyslexia and one that offered a stimulating, international and multicultural environment.”


MS: “What is the role of technology in your research? How has its development over the years influenced your work?”

GE: “The impact of fMRI for my research is huge. Because it is non-invasive we can study children and scan our volunteers at multiple time points. This means we can look at the brain much earlier in life and not worry about whether our observations in adults are the cause of dyslexia or the consequence of having lived with dyslexia. We can also study children and adults often, for example prior to and following interventions. Finally, since reading is uniquely human, we rely on imaging techniques to provide us with the insights, as we cannot simulate them via animal models.”

MS: “What has been or will be the impact of your research?”

GE: “Our research has helped to resolve contrasting theoretical frameworks that have been put forward to explain the etiology of dyslexia. For example, if you observe that children with dyslexia have altered visual processing and altered phonological processing, then you need to know which of these is causing their reading difficulties and which is an epiphenomenon of their dyslexia. This is important when it comes to considering appropriate and effective intervention. There is still much confusion amongst parents and practitioners about how to best go about treatment. It does not help that the internet is full of promising programs that have no research to back them. Here I think we can make an important contribution by examining the brains of people with dyslexia to better understand the origins of their reading problems.”


MS: “What is the most significant challenge your area of research faces?”

GE: “It continues to be hard to take the research into practice. We have known for decades now how to identify children who are at risk for having reading difficulties. There are some simple and brief pencil-and-paper tests that can be given to kindergarteners that will give you a good sense about whether they will likely struggle with learning to read. Since dyslexia runs in families, knowing if other family members have a history of reading difficulties is another way of knowing which children are at risk. Unfortunately children who are at risk are not identified and given the early intervention that they need. As a result, they fall behind over the early years of schooling and the problem is often not addressed until a time when it becomes huge, at which point that child has not only lost valuable time to learn (since reading is the gateway to knowledge acquisition) but also has developed problems with self-esteem, anxiety about reading or depression.


“Our imaging research has helped increase the understanding that dyslexia is a brain-based disorder and has heightened awareness. At the same time we need to work on more professional development for teachers to help them identify the signs of dyslexia and how to teach children who have this reading disability. It should be noted that brain imaging is purely a research tool. It is not used to diagnose dyslexia. And in fact, we have the simple behavioral tests in place that can be used for this purpose - we just need them to be implemented and acted on in the educational setting.”


As Dr. Eden mentioned, bringing into play research findings in potential interventions is one of the most demanding aspects of this field of neuroscience, which places a substantial focus on learning disabilities. The ultimate challenge we face is how to approach the large amount of data we have gained through rapidly developing technology and apply it for a better world.

    Megumi Sano

    Megumi Sano

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