People of any age can make gains against dyslexia (search), America's most common learning disability, according to a new study.

The key, according to the report published in the Oct. 28 issue of the journal Neuron, is tutoring which relies on word processing skills called phonics. Such training can improve word skills and even change the brain's activity.

People with dyslexia have difficulty learning to read. According to the study, the problem accounts for 80 percent of all learning disabilities and affects 5-17 percent of the population.

Researchers including Guinevere Eden of Georgetown University Medical Center and Karen Jones of Wake Forest University Medical Center teamed up for the study.

First, they recruited 19 healthy adults with dyslexia and 19 without dyslexia. Participants had their brains scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map areas of the brain that were active during a simple word processing exercise.

The dyslexic participants had less activity in parts of the brain associated with reading. The researchers expected that, since other studies had shown that people with dyslexia have underactivity in areas of the brain that process language and decode words into groups of letters that are associated with meaningful sound patterns.

Next, the experts divided the dyslexic participants into two groups. One group received eight weeks (15 hours per week) of intensive phonics-based tutoring. For comparison, the second group didn't receive any training.

Tutoring was a big help.

Written tests showed that dyslexic-tutored participants improved in measurements of their ability to process phonics and read words. They also showed "significant enhancement," say the researchers, in the use of their brain's left hemisphere parietal cortex (search), which governs reading, as well as several areas in the right side of the brain. The research showed actual changes in the brain of dyslexic adults who underwent tutorial training. This resulted in significant improvements in reading.

That's good news, since dyslexia is widespread and doesn't go away by itself.

"The majority of the dyslexic population are adults, many of whom suffer significant financial and emotional consequences," write the researchers.

"These findings provide evidence that dyslexic adults are not, as may have been assumed, unable to profit from remedial practice," they say.

"In fact, the same strategies that are effective in teaching children phonological awareness skills are helpful in adults. Further, they are accompanied by neural changes known to underlie reading remediation of developmental dyslexia in childhood."

By  Miranda Hitti, reviewed by  Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Eden, G. Neuron, October 28, 2004; vol 44: pp 411-422. News release, Georgetown University. News release, Wake Forest University.