$8.5 million NIH grant may help decipher dyslexia

If you can read this sentence with ease, consider yourself fortunate: Millions of Americans with dyslexia cannot. In the hope of improving the lives of those struggling readers, a team of experts at Florida State University is working to better understand and diagnose dyslexia and other learning disabilities with a new, $8.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Today, a person with a learning disability is less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be unemployed as an adult, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The stakes are getting higher as success in life becomes more and more dependent on one’s ability to read.

The five-year grant will allow faculty at FSU’s Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) to continue work begun five years ago through a prior NIH award that funded a learning-disabilities research center ­­— one of just four such centers across the country, and the only one in the Southeast.

“The formal name for this is the Multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center,” said Wagner, an associate director of the center. “We have educators, we have psychologists, we have people from other disciplines who rub elbows every day. Because of that, we already work collaboratively, and that was critical for being able to get the NIH award.”

With its wide range of experts from various disciplines, the FCRR is well positioned to tackle the complex problem of dyslexia. The fact that Florida State researchers have won this competitive award for the second consecutive time reflects the high regard held by the National Institutes of Health for the research done at the center, said Francis Eppes Professor of Education and FCRR Director Barbara Foorman.

“This research team, led by Dr. Wagner, is poised to make even greater progress in advancing our understanding of a set of disabilities affecting some 15 to 20 percent of the population,” Foorman said.

Previous research at the learning disabilities center has pointed the current studies in some new directions.

For instance, when researchers wrote the original proposal, finding a specific “candidate gene” for dyslexia –– a kind of smoking gun that would account for the genetic aspect of the disability –– seemed very promising. However, Wagner acknowledges that initial work shows the problem to be much more complex.

“Now it’s looking like the genetic susceptibility for dyslexia probably won’t be localized into one or even a handful of genes,” said Wagner, ”but is, in fact, represented more by the complex interactions among a large number of genes and areas of the genome that do not appear to contain genes.”

The environment also plays a role in dyslexia, Wagner said, making it all the more important to identify the disability early. Today, risk for future reading problems in children can be identified as young as age 3.

“It is really important to be able to identify children as early as possible and try to provide them with prevention programs that are designed to strengthen weak areas,” said Wagner, “so that when they do get to the point of learning to read, they will have a better outcome than they would otherwise.”

Other researchers serving as principal investigators on the grant include Florida State University faculty members Carol Connor (FCRR and Department of Psychology), Christopher Lonigan (FCRR and Psychology), Yaacov Petscher (FCRR), Christopher Schatschneider (FCRR and Psychology) and Jeanette Taylor (Psychology). Joining them is Elena Grigorenko of Yale University’s Child Study Center.

Co-investigators on the project include Florida State faculty members Barbara Foorman (FCRR and School of Teacher Education), Sara Hart (FCRR and Department of Psychology), Mike Kaschak (Psychology), Young-Suk Kim (FCRR, School of TeacherEducation), Beth Phillips (FCRR and Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems) and Jeanne Wanzek (FCRR and School of Teacher Education).

About the FCRR:

The Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) is the nation’s premier research organization devoted to literacy. The center’s faculty boasts the broadest and deepest collection of reading experts in the world. Established in 2002 by the Florida Legislature, the FCRR is jointly administered at Florida State by the Learning Systems Institute and the College of Arts and Sciences.