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What Goes Wrong in the Brain When Someone Can’t Spell – By Lisa O’Neill Hill

By studying the brains of stroke survivors, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have identified the distinct parts of the brain that control spelling. Their research could lead to better therapies for spelling recovery.

The research, published in the journal Brain, linked basic spelling difficulties for the first time with damage to seemingly unrelated regions of the brain.

“We can learn a lot about how the brain works by studying when there is damage to the brain,” said lead author Brenda Rapp, professor and chair, Department of Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins University.

The study focused on two kinds of spelling problems. Some of the stroke survivors had long-term memory challenges and couldn't remember how to spell words they used to know. For example, a word like “yacht” isn't predictable and needs to be stored in memory. “Sauce,” another unpredictable word, might become “soss.”

Other stroke survivors had working memory problems; they knew how to spell a word but had a hard time choosing the right letters or putting them in the correct order.

Rapp’s team found that survivors who had long-term memory problems had damage to two areas of the left hemisphere, one near the front of the brain and the other at the lower part of the brain toward the back. Survivors who had challenges with working memory had damage in a different part of the left hemisphere – the upper part of the brain toward the back.

Rapp, who has been working with survivors for decades, said the survivors who have helped with her research have been pleased to be part of it.

“Given this life-changing event with so much loss associated with it, it is really a positive thing to feel that they are participating in some kind of research study,” she said. “They can contribute to our understanding of how the brain works.”

Rapp said spelling is often overlooked when people ask about things stroke survivors have trouble with. “I would encourage people to always ask if there’s a problem with spelling,” she said. Spelling could also help a survivor communicate if his or her spelling is better than his or her speaking.

Rapp is now doing a study with the same population of survivors to see the efficacy of behavioral therapy. “The good news is that everybody gets better. Not everybody gets well but everybody we work with just behavioral training shows significant improvement.” She’s working to understand how that recovery happens.

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