UC Merced Connect: Professor’s research shines new light on dyslexia

Dyslexia is one of the oldest diagnosed learning disabilities – and one of the most widely researched. However, a UC Merced professor believes there is more to learn, and his recent research has shed new light on what many have considered to be a disease.

Developmental psychologist Jeffrey Gilger sees dyslexia less as a disease and more as an example of how brain development can differ from the norm. Gilger recently published three articles taking a different look at dyslexia which manifests itself as a phonological disorder – the brain doesn’t match sounds to the correct letter symbol – and can affect speakers of all languages.

On average, 7percent of the school-age population are estimated to have dyslexia, with some studies suggesting even higher rates. Dyslexia runs in families, and research has identified several genes that, along with environmental factors, may contribute to the risk for having the condition.

Gilger, who has been on the UC Merced faculty for two years, has been using brain imaging to examine neurobiological processes found in adults with dyslexia and a special group of dyslexics who are gifted in nonverbal abilities.

In one study, he compared gifted dyslexics to a group of adults who were also gifted but normal readers. This study showed that while these two groups of adults performed similarly when taking behavioral tests, they use different neural processes or strategies to arrive at the same answers.

“This raises our awareness of how individual differences in neurology might be considered alongside behavioral observations when examining those with reading disabilities and/or giftedness,” Gilger said.

In another study, he was part of a team of researchers using brain imaging to see how adults with dyslexia perform when analyzing complex and dynamic spatial material unrelated to reading. The first study of its type, the results have shown that those with dyslexia seem to process this kind of information differently than those without dyslexia – just as they process reading material differently. This finding suggested that the brains of dyslexics are atypical in many areas, not only in those involved in reading.

Students excel at national science conference

Two UC Merced students – Viridiana Murillo and Alexandro Perez-Tovar – won first prize in their divisions at the recent Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos & Native Americans in Science conference in San Antonio, Texas.

Nineteen UC Merced students joined other scholars from all over the country at the conference, presenting the details of the research they’ve been conducting.

“The most rewarding thing about winning is knowing that all my hard work and the hours I have put into my project have paid off,” said Perez-Tovar, 21, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student from Los Banos.

“Receiving this award to me was truly an honor,” said Murillo, 23, of Pomona. She is the president of the new local chapter of SACNAS. “For me, this was the moment where I would prove myself and my work. When I heard my name called I did not believe it.”

Perez-Tovar worked with professor Gerardo Diaz on a plasma gasification system Diaz has been using to burn biomass. Finding the efficiency of the plasma system will help conclude whether it is a strong candidate for converting waste to energy, Perez-Tovar said. He won the Outstanding Contribution and Research Presentation award in mechanical engineering.

The students who participated were part of a nine-week, intense summer research experience provided by the Undergraduate Research and Opportunities Center at UC Merced.