Study: Poor Brain Connectivity Causes Learning Difficulties
Until recently, learning difficulties were thought to stem from problems in specific brain regions. A new study suggests that poor connectivity between brain “hubs” — not the regions themselves — is much more strongly related to learning difficulties.
March 23, 2020
Children with poor connectivity between the “hubs” in their brains are more likely to have learning difficulties, according to a new University of Cambridge study. In contrast, the study found that children with brain networks strongly organized around highly connected hubs had only selective cognitive impairments or no cognitive impairments at all.1
Researchers used structural neuroimaging, cognitive, and learning data from 479 children — 337 with learning-related cognitive problems and 142 without — to determine that problems in no specific brain regions predicted having a particular learning disability. Moreover, different brain regions did not predict specific cognitive difficulties, such as language or memory problems. Rather, the study found that the severity of a child’s learning disability was strongly associated with the connectedness of the hubs in their brain. Dr. Duncan Astle, senior author on the study, says this is probably because “hubs play a key role in sharing information between brain areas.”2
These findings suggest that interventions should rely less on diagnostic labels. Though a learning disability diagnosis can open the door for specialist support, Dr. Astle suggests it’s better to consider “areas of cognitive difficulties and how these can be supported, for example using specific interventions to improve listening skills or language competencies, or adopting interventions that would be good for the whole class by, for example, reducing working memory demands during learning.”
Results might also explain why drug treatments aren’t effective for developmental disorders; they target specific types of nerve cells, but would have little impact on a “hub-based” organization. While this is the first study to show that learning difficulties arise from poor connections between brain hubs, their importance in understanding brain disorders is becoming increasingly clear. Similar research in 2019 found that faulty communication between regions in the brain is tied to ADHD.
1Siugzdaite, Roma, et al. Transdiagnostic Brain Mapping in Developmental Disorders. Current Biology (Feb. 2020) 10.1016/j.cub.2020.01.078
2Learning Difficulties Due To Poor Connectivity, Not Specific Brain Regions. Science Daily (Feb. 2020) https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200227114457.htm
Updated on March 24, 2020