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The Gaab Lab for Developmental Neuroscience

Research Overview

What happens in our brains as we learn how to read?
How can we diagnose dyslexia early on in order to intervene more effectively?

Here at Gaab Lab we are working to shed light on such questions and many more through a variety of ongoing studies. Our laboratory focuses on developmental cognitive neuroscience. We study cognitive processes such as auditory perception, language or reading and their neurological bases in the developing human brain. The majority of our studies involve functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) but we also employ experimental behavioral studies and structural brain measurement techniques. Our main research areas we investigate right now include:
  • the neural correlates of reading and reading development (e.g.; does learning to read change your brain?)
  • the relationship between auditory processing disorders and reading impairments
  • the neural correlates of auditory and language processing in developmental dyslexia and specific language impairments
  • the development and evaluation of remediation programs for language and reading impairments
If you would like us to keep you in the loop about upcoming studies in your child(ren)’s age range, please click the button below to sign up for our Participant Registry.

BabyBOLD Study

BabyBOLD is a new longitudinal MRI study we have recently begun and for which we are actively recruiting infant participants. For more information, please visit our BabyBOLD page!

Milagros Study

Milagros is a new behavioral study we have recently begun and for which we are actively recruiting English- and/or Spanish-speaking preschool participants. For more information, please visit our Milagros page!

Boston Longitudinal Dyslexia Study (BOLD)

We are no longer recruiting participants for this study. We thank all of our participating families for their dedication to our research over the years! We are currently in the data analysis phase of this project.

The BOLD study aims to clarify how the brains of children who are pre-readers (ages 4-6 years) develop as they learn to read. Specifically, the study compares children with and without a family history of developmental dyslexia (defined as a parent or sibling with a formal diagnosis) and follows children longitudinally in order to track their behavioural and brain development. With this, we aim to improve early prediction of dyslexia, which is the most common learning disability, affecting 10-12% of the population. Ideally, early prediction translates to more effective intervention, thereby easing the clinical, psychological, and social difficulties that are often associated with dyslexia.

We are investigating the early detection of reading difficulties in pre-reading children. The main goal of this study is to use brain imaging methods to identify children at risk for developmental dyslexia at a very early age, before reading skills are even present. Because reading problems tend to run in families, we aim to look at how young children who have at least one family member diagnosed with dyslexia use their brains. We compare the brain networks of children who may later show signs of developmental dyslexia with those of typical pre-reading children.

Understanding brain processes in children with a risk for developmental dyslexia may help us to improve and implement early remediation programs. It may also lead to the development and support of social networks for parents and children. We hope that our work will help educators, scientists and parents to better understand how children with developmental dyslexia can best be supported to improve their reading development and experiences.

Research on the Early Attributes of Dyslexia (READ)

We are no longer recruiting participants for this study. We thank all of our participating families for their dedication to our research over the years! We are currently in the data analysis phase of this project.

The READ Study is a collaboration between the Gaab Lab and the Gabrieli Lab at MIT. Our goal is to understand how brain differences in kindergarten children might predict their reading ability in 2nd grade. Today, reading problems usually are not diagnosed until 2nd grade or even much later, but brain imaging may help us to identify which children could benefit from early intervention aimed at preventing reading difficulties. Our study was funded by a 5-year grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). We worked with 19 partner schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, including public (district and charter), private, and religious schools. Children in kindergarten or pre-K at these schools completed a short screening assessment. A subset of these children of varying pre-reading abilities were invited to participate in the brain imaging part of the study. Then, these children returned for follow-up assessment at the end of 1st and 2nd grade.

We hope to identify early signs of dyslexia in children who haven't yet learn to read, through both educational assessments and brain imaging. We screened over 1,000 kindergarten students for the risk of dyslexia using a battery of research-validated psychoeducational assessments. We then employed brain imaging methods on a subset of these students and followed them for three years with once-a-year behavioral battery. This study has the potential to:
  • Contribute and expand knowledge about reading development in general, and dyslexia in particular
  • Allow for early identification of dyslexia risk and therefore more effective interventions in order to prevent the clinical, psychological and social impact of developmental dyslexia
  • Help schools and researchers to develop procedures for effectively screening a large number of students for the risk for learning disabilities and employing brain imaging methods with young children

Autism Centers for Excellence (ACE)

The main goal of the ACE study is to identify gender differences in brain structure, function, connectivity, and genetics in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Currently, autism spectrum disorders affect more males than females. Research indicates that males are 15 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD. By learning more about these gender differences, we aim to improve techniques for diagnosis and interventions. In order to thoroughly investigate the questions we are asking, we will be using a variety of methods: neuropsychological testing, EEG, fMRI and a genetics portion. We are currently recruiting participants between the ages of 8-17 to participate in this study. Please contact jack.keller@childrens.harvard.edu or joseph.sanfilippo@childrens.harvard.edu for more information.

Detecting children at risk for Dyslexia in infancy

Researchers have shown that the brains of children and adults diagnosed with dyslexia are organized differently than those of other people the same age, and have also provided evidence that susceptibility to dyslexia may run in families.

This study is investigating whether these differences can be observed in the brains of infants with a family history of dyslexia. A family history means that you have a parent or sibling who has been diagnosed with developmental dyslexia by a doctor or psychologist. We would like to learn what age brain differences first begin to appear in people who are at risk for dyslexia, and whether they can be used to identify children at risk in infancy. The goal of this study is to provide new information to help us learn to diagnose dyslexia in infancy, which could help us develop more effective prevention and treatment strategies for susceptible infants before they go through certain crucial stages of brain development in the first two years of life.

To reach this goal, we will compare the brain images of infants with and without a family history of developmental dyslexia using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). MRI is a safe and completely non-invasive method that we use to take pictures of the brain. We will utilize age-specific behavioral techniques and innovative MRI technology in order to safely acquire these brain images without using any sedation or anesthesia. Although sedation or anesthesia is commonly used with infants who need an MRI exam for clinical reasons, we hope that this study will promote the use of the techniques that we have developed so that other hospitals and research institutions can also learn to carry out infant MRI without using sedation or anesthesia. We believe that this will ultimately make the exam much safer and more cost-effective for patients and their families, as well as hospitals. Visit http://babymri.org for more information.



A Spaceship Adventure - with Mi & Mo

During our imaging sessions we play computer games with your child and look at their language, reading, and auditory abilities. We also look how your child's brain processes sounds, language and pictures. The kids usually have a lot of fun. This is is a short outtake from our "Spaceship Adventure Story" featuring Mi & Mo:

Mi and Mo were zoming around in their spaceship when they suddenly noticed a smoky smell. The spaceship was about to crash! Quick they landed on Earth.

The Earth seemed nice, but it was very different from home. Mi and Mo missed their family very much. It got darker and darker. How would they ever get back home?

Three little elves felt pity with the sad aliens and they came to offer them help. But to get back home, every elf has a task for Mi and Mo. Mi and Mo are frightened, because that might be hard. But wait may be YOU can help them to get back home...?