January 5, 1996 in Nation/World

Computer Games Help Learning-Disabled Kids Children’s Brains Reprogrammed To Process Sounds

Nancy Mcvicar Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
 

Computer games may be just what the doctor - or the speech therapist - orders in the future.

Science magazine reports today that children with language-based learning problems made “stunning” progress in just three short weeks of playing a specially designed computer game for three hours a day.

The CD-ROM game was designed to reprogram the brains of children who are normal in every other way, but who have trouble processing certain sounds early in life - usually consonant sounds like “ba” and “da” when they occur rapidly in speech.

Such problems occur in 8 percent to 10 percent of children and are identifiable when they are toddlers. Without therapy, the children will likely have difficulty reading and spelling once they start school, said Paula Tallal, scientific director for the Dana Consortium on Language-Based Learning Disabilities and a neuroscience professor at Rutgers University.

“When an acoustic signal is perceived, brain cells require a certain amount of time to respond,” Tallal said. Most people need just tens of milliseconds between sounds but language-learning children need hundreds of milliseconds, she said.

Tallal and Michael Merzenich, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, designed the studies and the computer games.

“The computer alters speech in such a way that the fast sounds explode out of the stream of speech. To the average person, it sounds distorted, but it enables the children to comprehend the phonics.”

As the children continued to play over the three-week period, the game sounds were altered gradually to become more like normal speech. The children’s daily use of language also gradually improved.

The results surprised even the researchers. Most of the 5- to 10-year-olds in two studies made two years’ worth of progress in only 20 days.

“Within a month we just get a dramatic improvement,” Merzenich said. “Some of them just blew our socks off.” The older children did somewhat better than the younger ones, but that was attributed to their longer attention spans in playing the games, he said.

The children were still making progress when the 20-day study ended, the researchers said.

Next step is to repeat the studies with larger numbers of children to confirm the results, Merzenich said, but details are still being worked out.

“We’re working on this as quickly as possible because we want it get it into homes and schools and speech therapists’ offices as soon as humanly possible,” he said.


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