Solving a New Reading Impairment

March 7, 2014 by Renee Fischer

Science of Learning Institute funds research of this perceptual difficulty

Amoon Velazquez had learned her ABCs just like any other American youth and loved reading books to her younger brothers, but a stroke at age 11 left her with a perplexing problem. While she could still see the world normally, when she went to read alphabetical letters, they only appeared as blurs.

A few years ago, Randall Fahs, who has a rare, progressive neurodegenerative disease, started facing a similar issue when it came to reading numerical digits.

Enter Michael McCloskey, a Krieger School professor of Cognitive Science, who’s been studying cognitive impairment following brain damage for 30 years. But this was something new.

“It’s a very category-specific perceptual problem,” says McCloskey who has been conducting behavioral studies and using fMRIs to understand what is happening with Velazquez and Fahs. “By trying to understand how this can happen when something goes wrong, we’re learning more about how the brain works normally,” he says.

McCloskey’s work began in part prior to receiving funding from the Johns Hopkins Science of Learning Institute, but McCloskey says the support he has now received will allow him to broaden the scope of his research to find other subjects, including children whose learning disabilities may have been misdiagnosed.

In addition to approaching this problem from a research point of view, McCloskey has worked to help Velazquez and Fahs work around the issue. Creating a set of surrogate symbols has allowed Fahs to continue his work as an engineering geologist, complete with a calculator which processes equations in both Arabic numerals and their symbolic equivalents.

Through trial and error, it was discovered that just altering the letters with a double strike-through differentiates them enough from standard letters that Velazquez’s brain can process them. “This girl who’d been almost completely unable to read for two years was suddenly able to read again,” McCloskey says. A talented Hopkins undergrad has even developed an iPad app to facilitate this conversion.

Velazquez is just happy she can again read to her younger brothers while her mother, Lorena Velazquez says, “Michael McCloskey, I thank God for him every day.”

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