Most parents prefer that their children pick up a book rather than a game controller. But for kids with dyslexia, action video games may be just what the doctor ordered.
Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disabilities, affecting an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the world's population. Many approaches to help struggling readers focus on words and phonetics, but researchers at Oxford University say dyslexia is more of an attention issue.
So programs should emphasize training the brain's attention system, they say, something that video games do. "These video games require you to respond very quickly, to shift attention to one part of the screen to another," says Vanessa Harrar, an experimental psychologist and lead author of the study.
When people with dyslexia had to shift their attention between sight and sound, their reaction was delayed. And they had significantly more trouble shifting attention from visual to audio than the other way around.
"It's not just shifting attention from one location to another, but we should also be training shifting attention from sound to visual stimuli and vice versa," Harrar, who is dyslexic herself, tells Shots.
She adds that at least for some people, making the association between a word and how it sounds might be easier if they hear it first and then see the corresponding symbols.
Scientists today still don't agree on what causes dyslexia, but one theory says it has something to do with a faulty nerve pathway from the eyes to the back of the brain that is responsible for guiding both visual and auditory attention. When this network malfunctions, people can't properly combine what they hear and see for the brain to process the information.
To test this, researchers asked 17 people with dyslexia and 19 control participants to press a button as quickly as they could each time they heard a sound, saw a dim flash of patterns on the computer screen or experienced both together.
The results showed that the dyslexic group took longer than typical readers to respond when they had to alternate their attention between a sound and a flash. What really stunned researchers was that the group reacted much more slowly to a sound if it followed the flash.
"We were very surprised by this result, that there was sort of this asymmetry that only occurs in one direction," Harrar says.
The study was published Feb. 13 in Current Biology,
One explanation for this may be what psychologists call visual capture, says Jeffrey Gilger, an expert in language and learning disabilities at the University of California, Merced.
"As human beings we prefer visual stimuli," Gilger, who was not involved in the study, tells Shots. "When you're trying to listen to someone on TV and the sound doesn't match the mouth moving, it throws you off.
"You're trying to get the sound to align with the vision, not the vision with the sound," he adds.
Since this was an unexpected outcome, Harrar says more research is needed to see if the asymmetrical delay is true for all people with dyslexia, and if video games that require quick shifts of attention would be helpful in overcoming it.
While the study did not directly test the effect of video games, her suggestion echoes the results of a 2013 experiment done in Italy. That study found that dyslexic children showed improvements in reading speed and attention skills after having played video games with lots of action.
Gilger cautions that while some dyslexic people do have attention deficit, it is not the underlying cause of every type of dyslexia. Some people may appear to lack focus, but that doesn't necessarily signal that they have attention problems.
"The reason they look that way is because they're disinterested in, perhaps, what they're doing in school or they don't want to stay on task," he says. "But that has nothing to do with the neurological problems that's causing the reading disability."
He does agree with Harrar, however, that the study demonstrates a need for advanced and individualized training programs based on solid research.
"Unfortunately, even though we are beginning to understand more about what causes these learning disabilities, including dyslexia ... treatment is way behind," Gilger says.
Copyright 2014 NPR.
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