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Bennett Shaywitz, MD

Charles and Helen Schwab Professor of Pediatrics (Neurology); Co-Director, Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity

Research Summary

Bennett A. Shaywitz, M.D. is the Charles and Helen Schwab Professor in Dyslexia and Learning Development at Yale University and Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

The author of over 350 scientific papers, Dr. Shaywitz’ honors include election to membership in the National Academy of Medicine within the National Academies and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Washington University. He, along with Dr. Sally Shaywitz, has been honored with the Liberty Science Center 2019 Genius Award “in recognition of your inspiring accomplishments and your pioneering work in advancing our understanding of dyslexia,” and they were recently profiled in the Scientists at Work section of the New York Times Science Section Decoding Dyslexia, a Life’s Work in Progress. Most recently, he and Dr. Sally Shaywitz were invited to present at the GoogleX Future of Reading Conference.

As a physician-scientist Dr. Shaywitz performs cutting-edge neuroscience research and epidemiological studies to advance the neuroscience of dyslexia and cares for children and adults who are dyslexic. Both a child neurologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Shaywitz is dedicated to ensuring that scientific progress in dyslexia is translated into policy and practice. His research applies functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to understand the neurobiology of reading and dyslexia in children and adults. These studies have identified a neural signature for dyslexia, making a previously hidden disability visible, and for the first time demonstrating the brain basis for the lack of fluency in dyslexia. Recent research by Dr. Shaywitz examines differences in brain connectivity between dyslexic and typical reading children, revealing that in dyslexia brain connectivity is disrupted to the word-form area, an area critical to reading fluency. Studying the relationship between reading and attention in dyslexia he showed that connectivity is disrupted between reading and attention systems.

His collaborative research with Dr. Sally Shaywitz’ Connecticut Longitudinal Study (CLS) reveal both the neurobiological and cognitive underpinnings and economic and personal impact of dyslexia. These studies were the first to show that girls were just as likely to have dyslexia as boys (Prevalence of Reading Disability in Boys and Girls: Results of the Connecticut Longitudinal Study) and that the neural systems for language differed between women and men (Sex differences in the functional organization of the brain for language,) a study that was featured on the cover of the prestigious journal Nature. A study in progress compares early cognitive and academic performance when the CLS subjects were age 5 years to measures in these very same individuals’ who are now adults in their early 40s, offering a unique opportunity for unravelling which specific predictors relate to specific outcomes.

Other honors include selection, along with Dr. Sally Shaywitz, as recipient of the Lawrence G. Crowley Distinguished Lectureship at Stanford University; The Annie Glenn Award at Ohio State University; the Distinguished Lectureship at Bank Street College of Education; and the Stoll Distinguished Lecture at Pennsylvania State University and selection as the Inaugural Sally Smith Award recipients. By invitation, he has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, here, in the U.S., at the Congressional Wives Club, U.S. Senate Field Hearings, as well as before many policy and education forums. Dr. Shaywitz serves on the Advisory Board of the Adult Literacy X Prize, on the boards of the Park Century School and the Louisiana Key Academy Dyslexia Resource Center. He previously served on the Institute of Medicine Immunization Safety Review Committee, on the National Vaccine Program Safety Subcommittee and on the Scientific Advisory Board of the March of Dimes.

Dr. Shaywitz has served for much of his career as Chief of Child Neurology at Yale School of Medicine, stepping down in 2015 to focus his energies on increasing public awareness and understanding of dyslexia and ensuring that 21st century knowledge of the science of dyslexia is used to inform the education and approach to children and adults who are dyslexic.

Extensive Research Description

The Neurobiology of dyslexia. Converging evidence from many laboratories around the world using functional brain imaging, first positron emission tomography (PET) in the 1980s and then functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the 1990s, for the first time has made visible what previously was a hidden disability. In one of the first studies of fMRI in dyslexia, we studied 144 children, approximately half of whom had dyslexia and half of whom were typical readers. Our findings indicated significantly greater activation in posterior reading systems in typical readers than in readers with dyslexia during a task tapping phonologic analysis. These data from fMRI studies in groups of children with dyslexia have been replicated in reports from many investigators and show a failure of left-hemisphere posterior brain systems to function properly during reading, particularly the systems in the left-hemisphere occipitotemporal regions. Good evidence suggests that the left hemisphere occipitotemporal region acts as an interactive node for reading, assimilating the orthography (the way the word looks), the phonology (the way the word sounds) and the semantics (what the word means). Other investigative groups studying prereaders with a family history of dyslexia have demonstrated that the inefficient functioning of posterior neural systems actually predate the poor reading providing evidence that the differences in brain function and structure are present even before the children learn to read. Furthermore, these functional brain imaging findings are universal, occurring in languages using alphabetic and logographic orthographies. Connectivity analyses of fMRI data represent the most recent evolution in characterizing brain networks in dyslexia. Measures of functional connectivity are designed to detect differences in brain regions with similar magnitudes of activation but whose activity is differentially synchronized with other brain systems across subject groups and/or types of stimuli. Using functional connectivity analyses involving the whole brain, we found that compared to typical readers, in dyslexic readers, connectivity was disrupted to the word-form area (critical to reading fluency), and between posterior reading systems and attention systems in frontal regions. We provide a more detailed discussion of brain imaging in Overcoming Dyslexia, 2nd edition by Sally Shaywitz and Jonathan Shaywitz published in 2020), These brain imaging studies provide neurobiological evidence that illuminates and clarifies current understanding of the nature of dyslexia and its treatment. For example, brain imaging has taken dyslexia from what had previously been considered a hidden disability to one that is visible; the findings of inefficient functioning in posterior reading systems are often referred to as a ‘neural signature for dyslexia’. These findings should eliminate any thoughts of whether dyslexia is real or a ‘valid’ diagnosis; even more so, these cutting-edge converging functional brain imaging data from imaging laboratories worldwide should encourage the use of the word ‘dyslexia,’ for it has meaning and relevance at levels reaching to the basic functional neural architecture in reading and its inefficient functioning in struggling readers. A final caveat: While functional brain imaging has produced very consistent and replicated studies in dyslexic compared to typical readers anatomic brain imaging has not produced as clear a picture.

Research Interests

Dyslexia; Magnetic Resonance Imaging; Neurobiology; Neurology; Pediatrics; Reading

Research Image

Selected Publications