As I mentioned in an earlier blog, my grandaughter Leila’s neighborhood public elementary school in Oakland, California is being reconstructed at all deliberate speed — and I emphasize the word ‘deliberate’ — after it was largely destroyed by an arsonist. Because schools and institutions in general have just lost the skill of doing anything FAST, much less on an actual schedule, it won’t be open in time for the start of school. But it’s not ALL bad news! Two benefactors have joined forces and decided to give Peralta School a computer cart and Fast ForWord software to jump-start their little brains, beginning at the start of the 2007 school year! Their BRAINS can go faster, even while the Oakland Unified School District can’t. This gift of hopefully-sharper kid brains shall hopefully make the temporary lodgings or the Peralta School family shared with high school kids just a little bit easier to take!

Chris recently submitted a comment in which he stated that Fast ForWord training does NOT address the underlying problems of dyslexia (which he lists as including memory deficits, diminished manual dexterity, and ADHD). You’re wrong twice, Chris. In the first place, the problems are more fundamental than these; THEY (and a host of other limitations) stem from a more fundamental weakness in how the brain represents information in detail, and at ‘high speed’. Second, THAT(THOSE) MORE FUNDAMENTAL NEUROLOGICAL WEAKNESS(ES) IS PRECISELY WHAT THIS PROGRAM IS DESIGNED TO ADDRESS. And that is EXACTLY why it impacts ALL of these abilities (as well as a helluva lot of others).

At the same time, like any other practical training strategy that makes any neurological sense (there are damned few of those out there), Fast ForWord can still get better! In fact, a new version for elementary school kids that shall be faster, still broader in its positive impacts, and almost certainly, still more effective, is now being constructed by Scientific Learning scientists, engineers, and artists. If and when its greater benefits are demonstrated by controlled studies (which is, of course, a pre-requisite for their commercial release) you’ll be able to see them for yourselves!

A final note: I know that I just glossed over the claim that this kind of listening training improves manual dexterity. We have strong evidence of this (e.g., handwriting samples are very significantly improved by training, digit tapping and sequence reconstruction is improved, etc.); but alas, unlike the demonstrations of improvements in memory and attention, clinicians and scientists who have conducted these studies have not yet formally reported their results, much less published them in refereed journals.

What can be striking gains in dexterity are believed to be attributable to generalized improvements in ‘temporal processing’ abilities. Earlier studies in my UCSF lab led by Drs. Beverly Wright and Dean Buonamano (now on the faculties of Northwestern and UCLA, respectively) have shown (along with other studies) that temporal skills training generalizes from listening to vision and somatosensation. These generalized gains are believed to arise from positive plastic changes that are initially limited to the listening cortex, but that with more extended training (several days) also induce enabling plastic changes more broadly in the cortex, and in the basal ganglia and cerebellum.