A major study has revealed that learning disabilities in children could be caused by how the brain is wired, rather than differences in particular brain regions.
According to official figures, around 15 per cent of pupils in England, or around 1.3 million children, have special education needs.
The research from the University of Cambridge highlights a new theory previously unexplored by scientists.
The researchers looked at 479 children. Around 337 of these had a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or developmental language disorder, or of a developmental disorder such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia, or autism spectrum disorder. The remaining 142 children, meanwhile, had no diagnosed condition.
Each child underwent a series of specialist tests, including cognitive, learning, and behavioural assessments. The brains of participants were also studied using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The results revealed that brain differences “did not map onto any labels the children had been given”.
For example, no significant difference was found in brain regions previously associated with ASD or ADHD, compared to the control group.
It was instead found that children’s brains were organised around “hubs”, described as “efficient traffic systems” or “social networks”.
Conclusively, well-connected brains were associated with “very specific cognitive abilities” such as poor listening skills – or having no difficulties at all.
Conversely, children with poorly-connected brains were more likely to experience “widespread and severe” problems.
Commenting on the study, senior author Dr Duncan Astle said: “Scientists have argued for decades that there are specific brain regions that predict having a particular learning disorder or difficulty, but we’ve shown that this isn’t the case.
“In fact, it’s much more important to consider how these brain areas are connected — specifically, whether they are connected via hubs. The severity of learning difficulties was strongly associated with the connectedness of these hubs, we think because these hubs play a key role in sharing information between brain areas.”
The doctor added that receiving a formal diagnosis is important for families, as it can give professional recognition for a child’s difficulties and open the door to specialist support’.
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