A radical new treatment in Italy might offer help for children in Britain
Watching her 15-year-old son disappear into a hospital room to have electrodes strapped to his head was a tough challenge for Francesca Matteucci. The Italian mother had reluctantly allowed doctors at the Bambino Gesù hospital in Rome to pass an electric current through her son’s brain. It was part of an experiment to see how it affected his dyslexia, which had made reading a nightmare.
“I was hesitant about letting my son be used as a guinea pig,” says Matteucci. “But then he took reading tests and told me, ‘Mama! I’m reading really fast.’ So right now I am really happy because he is happy.”
Matteucci’s son, Carlo Maria Mazzanti, was one of 18 youngsters who took part last year in a controversial six-week programme to stimulate neural pathways that underperform in cases of dyslexia. The preliminary results were extremely promising and included a 50 per cent reduction in errors in certain reading tests.
They are set to get experts talking in the UK, where dyslexia affects 10 per cent of the population, far higher than the 3 per cent affected in Italy. “We are still cautious, but some of the results are shocking,” says Dr Deny Menghini, who organised the tests. She is receiving requests from UK parents to sign up their dyslexic children for trials.
Matteucci and her husband, Mauro Mazzanti, are accountants in their late forties. They live in a large, airy apartment in the leafy, middle-class Balduina neighbourhood of Rome, high on a hill overlooking the choking traffic of the city. “When he was about 12 we noticed Carlo Maria would read two lines of a text then lose track, or even read half a word and invent the second half of the word,” Matteucci says. “We first thought he just didn’t want to study.”
Although Carlo Maria was growing into an eloquent teenager with a high IQ, he quickly lost track of what he was reading whenever he picked up a book. “I’d see words move around on the page, and in class at school I would feel as if I was unplugged,” he says.
People with dyslexia have difficulty learning to read owing to differences in the part of the brain that processes language and vision. “It looked like he was suffering from a low attention span, but actually he was under huge stress to just keep up in class,” says Serena Rossi, a speech therapist who has worked with the group.
It is not a magic cure — you will always be dyslexic
After Carlo Maria was diagnosed as dyslexic, his parents diligently left work early to help him with his homework. They sent him to speech therapists three times a week. His problems brought him to the attention of Menghini, a neuropsychologist who had been researching the use of electricity to help dyslexics.
As opposed to electro-shock therapy, which uses 600 milliamperes, Menghini planned to use one milliampere, enough to light a single Christmas tree light. “We are not using electric shocks,” she says. “This level of electricity has been tried on autistic and hyperactive children, albeit with little result, and we are also testing it on anorexics.”
The children attended three 20-minute sessions a week, spread over six weeks, for a total of 18 sessions. Nine youths aged between 10 and 17 were hooked up to the current, while another nine were chosen as unwitting control cases who received current for only 30 seconds each session.
“I was doubtful when we were asked,” says Matteucci. “Partly because it was experimental and partly because Carlo Maria could have been in the control group, meaning we could be sitting in traffic three times a week to get to the hospital for nothing.” Her husband was keen, however, and Carlo Maria’s enthusiasm clinched it. “There are dyslexic kids out there worse off than me,” he says, “and I felt I could be useful to them by participating.”
On the first day the teenager was led into a small room where two damp sponges connected to electrodes were attached to his head. “Sometimes I felt a strange vibration and at other times a slight feeling similar to pins and needles, but there was no discomfort,” he recalls.
From the fourth session the children were given reading tests. Carlo Maria was amazed to find that his reading was getting faster and less error-strewn. “I was not being given my results or even told if I was in the active group, but I know my limits and the mistakes I make, so I felt a kind of stupor as my reading ability picked up,” he says
Menghini waited a month after the sessions finished then tested the active group again, comparing the results with tests taken before the sessions started. She discovered that the group’s rate of errors when reading lists of uncommon words had dropped by half. Their speed in reading lists of invented words — used to stop the subjects recognising words from memory — improved by 38 per cent.
“We saw an increase in the speed of overall reading texts of about 13 per cent after a month, but there were big differences between the children, so we didn’t take it into consideration,” says Menghini. “However, we tested again after six months and preliminary results were better and more consistent, suggesting that, surprisingly, the children have continued to improve in the months after the sessions.” Meanwhile, the control group showed little or no improvement.
Matteucci says her son’s reading speed and error rate have improved by about 30 per cent since the sessions and his grades at school are better too. He has not suffered headaches or any other side effects, says her husband. “I can now do three homework subjects in an evening instead of one because I can now do more things in less time,” says Carlo Maria.
The tests have been criticised by dyslexia bloggers in Italy who argue that dyslexics should work around their condition rather than trying to cure it as if it were a disease. “If a child is not concerned about his or her condition, then I agree the treatment is not called for,” says Menghini. “But if the child is anxious and doing badly at school then it is a problem. That said, this should not be a substitute for other forms of therapy for dyslexia.” Serena Rossi, the speech therapist, says: “It is not a magic cure. You will always be dyslexic, but we can improve the condition.”
Daniela, 19, another veteran of the electrode sessions, failed her first year of high school, but bounced back in class after her weekly doses of milliamperes. “I can listen now and stay more focused,” she says. Diagnosed as dyslexic at the late age of 17, the Roman schoolgirl had trouble reading an analogue clock and got left and right mixed up. “I would lose track of things I read and would ask my mother to read my homework to me.”
Her mother, Anna, a librarian, says: “Doctors said Daniela was doing twice or three times the work as the others to try to keep up.” When she was asked to join Menghini’s sessions, Daniela jumped at the chance, backed by her mother. “We always take the latest flu vaccines and we are open to innovation,” says Anna.
Six months later Daniela took 59 seconds to complete a reading test similar to one she had finished in 93 seconds before the sessions. “I realised the difference when we were on holiday. I was able to read an advertising billboard as we drove past it fast in the car, something I would not have been able to do before,” she says. At school her work in her English class has improved. “English is so full of irregular words that I never understood anything,” she says.
Dyslexics can have trouble “sounding out” regular words that are written phonetically, ie those that are pronounced the way they are spelt. Yet irregular words, where the pronunciation needs to be learnt by memory, can be doubly troublesome. With so many irregular words, English is a minefield for dyslexics, which is why the condition is more prevalent in the UK.
Menghini’s sessions last year focused on the part of the brain that handles the sounding out of words written phonetically. She is now starting a second round of tests with a new group to try to improve success with words stored in the memory, including irregular words. That involves shifting the electrodes by 2-3cm to tackle a part of the brain called the visual word form area, which recognises memory words.
British experts on dyslexia are divided on Menghini’s used of electricity, which is known as transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. Dr Daisy Powell, an associate professor at the University of Reading, says hundreds of subjects would be needed to give reliable results and that she was puzzled why some aspects of reading performance showed little or no improvement.
“While the study is interesting, I’d be very cautious in interpreting findings as suggesting that brain stimulation through tDCS is a potential way forward for helping children with reading difficulties,” she says.
However, Dr Liory Fern Pollak, a lecturer at the University of West London, says the study had “brilliant implications” by showing that tDCS could give the brain a “boost” to “rewire itself” more efficiently than with therapy and training alone.
“This is great because one of the big problems that dyslexic children face is frustration at the need to work harder than everyone else, with little or no results. This technique could potentially help those children get better at reading faster,” she says.
Encouraged by her success with Carlo Maria and Daniela’s group, Menghini is recruiting a second group to repeat the phonetic word sessions. “Now we are seeing that performances are still improving six months after the sessions, we might stick to five sessions rather than 18 next time and see if that is enough,” she says.
Carlo Maria’s father says his son has built up his self-esteem thanks to the sessions. “He used to see homework as a dark monster, but now he is saying, for the first time in his life, ‘I’m off to study.’