For quite some time, science has attributed learning difficulties such as dyslexia and language processing disorder to malfunctions in specific areas of the brain. Now however, new research from the University of Cambridge, UK, has found that these difficulties may instead be the result of how brains are wired.
For their study, the team of researchers collected data from 500 children with learning difficulties from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. They then fed the data into an artificial neural network to distinguish between each child’s cognitive profile. Next, using a process called “cross-validation”, the researchers made associations between various cognitive profiles and different learning abilities.
In the end, the researchers found that there are no specific areas in the brain that can be held responsible for a particular disorder or difficulty. In particular, they found that regional brain data from specific areas did not strongly correlate with cognitive abilities, and that using this data alone, it was not possible to diagnose ASD or ADHD. In fact, they found that the same cognitive profile could be associated with multiple different brain profiles.
Moreover, they found that children’s brains were organized around ‘hubs’, almost like in a transport network. While children with well-connected ‘hubs' tended to land on extremes of cognitive difficulties- either having very specific varieties or none at all, those with poorly connected hubs had widespread, and oftentime, severe cognitive issues.
Roma Siugzdaite, one of the study’s authors said, “Maybe the important thing about kids' brains isn't related to specific regions or areas... but instead to how those areas are wired together. Think about other complex systems, like subway... When they shut unexpectedly it can have a catastrophic effect on the whole network. This is true for all sorts of networks, even social networks. It is true of the brain also; hubs play a key role in making sure that information can pass between different brain regions.”
All in all, the research offers new insights in how children’s cognitive abilities link to their brain structures. In particular, the findings highlight that a child’s diagnosis may not be able to predict their cognitive problems nor their underlying brain functionality.