Learning Disabilities: Can brain scans show improvements?

SUN1209 BOYDA new research project at UBC has special educators buzzing: Can we see the impact of cognitive interventions on a brain scan for children struggling with learning disabilities?

Dr. Lara Boyd, the highly-regarded Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology of Motor Learning, is spearheading this medical investigation into cognitive remediation for struggling students. In a quest for medical proof, she is using MRI brain scans for the first time to test children’s brain functioning during a school year of cognitive interventions.

Dr. Boyd’s investigation centres on the Arrowsmith Program methods used in specialized classrooms within schools in North America, Australia and New Zealand that use special cognitive exercises to target specific learning disabilities. Anecdotally, the school’s exercises are promising –enough to pique Dr. Boyd’s interest in partnering with Arrowsmith on this study to find medical evidence that Arrowsmith exercises stimulate impeded parts of the brain.

Specifically, Dr. Boyd is investigating changes in “neuroplasticity”, meaning the brain’s ability Arrowsmith_fMRI1[1]to change and learn as a result of repetitive and specific experiences – advances in technology allow her to newly document beneficial increased plasticity. Finding better neuroplasticity in certain areas of the brain will signify the potential for learning improvements, and link specific cognitive programs with specific neural responses. Most often, Dr. Boyd will see the plasticity changes in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, as it is responsible for common learning disabilities involving executive memory, planning and attention.

Dr. Boyd Arrowsmith_fMRI2will test 20 right-handed children three times over the next year, half of them attending Eaton Arrowsmith School in Vancouver, BC.  Her findings in this initial study are greatly anticipated, as the personal and societal cost of learning disabilities is considerable. Today, one in 12 children battles a learning disability, a highly-frustrating condition for children and parents that can ultimately hamper the child’s success in life.


Your opportunity to help children: Dr. Boyd’s pilot project is destined to grow into a full-scale study. Your generous support can help further high-level research and promising classroom interventions for students with learning disabilities. With enough support, the advanced testing at Dr. Boyd’s Brain and Behaviour Lab could lead to increasingly sophisticated cognitive interventions, enabling children to overcome learning disabilities and reach their full potential.

How your support can help children succeed:
• $550, the cost of one brain scan
• $250, the cost of a researcher to analyze data from one MRI scan
• $100, the equivalent of four hours of a PhD student’s time spent on the research study.

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To support this groundbreaking research on learning disabilities, please contact:

Fatima Hassam
Associate Director of Development