Florida State University has been awarded a $6-million grant from the federal government over five years to fund research efforts aimed at more effectively understanding, predicting and preventing the development of learning disabilities such as dyslexia in children.
The grant will fund the creation of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center at FSU. The center, which will be one of only four in the nation, represents the NIH’s flagship research program for learning disabilities.
Dyslexia is a learning disorder marked by impairment of the ability to recognize and comprehend written words. Although once thought of as visual disorder, scientists now know that the condition’s manifestations—misspellings, reversing letters and words, even writing backwards—spring from an inability to recognize sounds, not visual cues.
"Many kids with reading disabilities really aren’t identified until the second grade," said Richard K. Wagner, FSU’s Alfred Binet Professor of Psychology and a Distinguished Professor of Psychology. As the principal investigator for the NIH grant, he will oversee the work of the Multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center.
The center will enable FSU researchers to conduct behavioral and genetic studies involving thousands of Florida children with dyslexia. The center will be an arm of FSU’s Florida Center for Reading Research (www.fcrr.org), which was itself established in 2002 as a cornerstone of Gov. Jeb Bush’s "Just Read, Florida!" initiative to have all schoolchildren in the state reading at their grade level by the year 2012.
"Our hope is to develop ways of diagnosing dyslexia and other learning disabilities at a younger age so that these children have greater chances of leading a happy, productive and successful life," Wagner said. "And it’s a phenomenal opportunity for FSU because we will get to participate in the NIH’s premier research into dyslexia."
Wagner said the center will conduct several studies involving large numbers of volunteers. In one of these, FSU researchers will identify a sample of 500 Florida families with members who have severe reading problems. In addition to educational and psychological testing, DNA samples will be taken from the volunteers to examine possible genetic components of their learning disabilities.
FSU also plans to perform a large-scale study of twins.
"We will be searching for 9,000 sets of twins from throughout the state," Wagner said. "After we identify them, we will seek parental permission to access their school records. Specifically, we will be looking for variability in their reading skills."
In addition to Wagner, nearly two dozen faculty members and post-doctoral researchers from FSU’s departments of psychology and communication disorders, College of Education, and Florida Center for Reading Research, as well as four molecular geneticists from the Yale University School of Medicine, will participate in five major research projects under the NIH grant.
"For more than 20 years, Rick Wagner has been a leading scholar in the areas of learning disabilities, dyslexia and cognitive psychology," said Joseph K. Torgesen, director of the Florida Center for Reading Research. "I am delighted that he will have the opportunity to put his expertise to use in overseeing such important research into the study of dyslexia."
The statistics on dyslexia tell a sobering story. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), approximately 15 percent of American students may have the learning disability. The U.S. Department of Education, meanwhile, estimated in a 2001 report to Congress that 27 percent of children with learning disabilities eventually drop out of high school. And in its report "Illiteracy: A National Crisis," the United Way states that the cost of illiteracy to U.S. businesses and taxpayers is around $20 billion per year.