2022 Innovation Fund Awardees

Constructing Relational Concepts Through Peer-Assisted Construction

Brittney Cooper (UC Berkeley, GSE); Advisor: Dor Abrahamson (UC Berkeley, GSE)

Cerebral palsy (CP) is the most common motor disability in childhood affecting approximately 2 million children in the US (Durkin et al., 2016). Many children with CP have limited functional speech and benefit from augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Evidence suggests that expressive use of relational concept (RC) vocabulary may be especially delayed compared to other word categories (Stadskleiv et al., 2018), impacting several areas of academic and linguistic development. Our design-based project innovatively brings embodiment theory to bear on aided language development to develop a pedagogical tool for teaching RCs to children with CP using AAC. The objective of this initial phase is to develop and evaluate an intervention involving collaborative ‘barrier-games’ that we hypothesize will solicit the child’s embodied resources to ground RCs in situated meaning. Teaching RCs by making construction activities accessible to neuro- and sensory-diverse children can provide a foundation for linguistic, cognitive, and literacy development. 

Harnessing Socio-Emotional Differences in a Strength-Based Approach to Dyslexia

Eleanor Palser (UCSF Neurology); Advisors: Virginia Sturm (UCSF); Ronald Dahl (UC Berkeley)

Dyslexia research has largely focused on reading deficits, with few studies examining other abilities. Adopting a “whole-person approach” may identify strengths that can be leveraged in education, intervention and employment, promoting resilience against mental health challenges. Preliminary findings suggest children with dyslexia have socio- emotional strengths associated with heightened activity in the autonomic nervous system and the brain’s salience network. The proposed multi-method project will quantify these strengths with laboratory and real-world measures of creativity, prosocial behavior, empathy, and social emotions. We will investigate how autonomic nervous system activity contributes cross-sectionally and longitudinally to these strengths. In Aim 1, 30 children with dyslexia and 30 neurotypical children will complete laboratory measures of socio-emotional functioning, plus structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging. In Aim 2, previously collected laboratory measures of autonomic nervous system activity in 50 children with dyslexia and 50 neurotypical children will be used to predict current real-world socio-emotional strengths.

Detailed Cortical Mapping of Disrupted Language Representations in Dyslexia

Fatma Deniz (UC Berkeley); Maria Luisa Mandelli (UCSF); Jack Gallant (UC Berkeley)

Dyslexia is a neurogenetic learning disability that impairs written language processing abilities. Currently, it is debated how dyslexia impacts the functional processing of visual sensory and linguistic information in the brain. We propose to use Voxelwise Modeling (VM) to investigate these differences in developmental dyslexia. VM is a powerful encoding model technique that has been used to model fMRI brain responses during natural tasks such as reading or listening to a story. VM can also be used to quantify what sensory and linguistic information is represented in brain activity at the resolution of individual subjects and voxels. In collaboration with Dr. Gorno-Tempini’s lab at UCSF and Dr. Gallant’s lab at UCB, this project will set up the preliminary groundwork to adapt VM to translational clinical research on dyslexia.

Disability Identity in SLD and ADHD

Mercedes Zapata (UC Berkeley); Advisor: Frank Worrell (UC Berkeley)

Positive disability identity has been proposed as a protective factor against disability-related life stressors. Personal disability identity (PDI) refers to positive self-concept as a person with a disability. Measures of PDI capture the following attitudes: disability affirmation, disability acceptance (Hahn & Belt, 2004), positive personal meaning in disability, and disability self-worth (Zapata, 2019, 2021). Research on PDI has focused on physical and sensory disabilities and has yet to examine attitudes of people with other disabilities, including specific learning disabilities (SLD) and/or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This proposed study will (a) evaluate psychometric properties of current PDI measures in a sample of adults with SLD and/or ADHD and (b) examine the associations between PDI attitudes and various positive adjustment indicators, including those previously explored in the disability identity literature (anxiety and depression, life satisfaction, general self-efficacy, employment) and one which have not been previously explored (growth mindset).

Neuropathology and Transcriptomic Profiling of Language-Related Regions in Individuals with History of Learning Disability and Late-Life Neurodegeneration

Salvatore Spina (UCSF); Mercedes Paredes (UCSF)

Developmental dyslexia (DD) is a risk factor for primary progressive aphasia (PPA)and posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), clinical syndromes primarily affecting language (PPA), or vision and mental calculation (PCA). Both PPA and PCA are strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), suggesting that genetic variants underly language and mathematical networks vulnerability in both learning disabilities and neurodegeneration. To elucidate the impact of DD in the neuropathological features of AD, we will study the brain of PPA and PCA patients with and without DD to assess i) difference in the severity of Alzheimer’s disease neuropathology, and ii) differences in single-nucleus RNA sequencing transcriptomic profile in language-related brain regions. Our proposal aims to highlight genetic pathways linked to cortical development that are unique to AD patients with history of DD, therefore providing important insights on the development of dyslexia in children and their potential risk for the development of later-in-life neurodegeneration.  

The Implications of Bilingualism on Language and Cognitive Performance in Dyslexic Children

Sandhya Kannan (UC Berkeley); Advisors: Nina Dronkers (UC Berkeley); Jessica de Leon (UCSF)

Various studies suggest that in healthy individuals, bilingualism may provide cognitive advantages, specifically in executive function and language measures. With language measures, typically reading bilingual adults appear to have an advantage in novel word learning and fluency, as being bilingual appears to facilitate overall word-learning capabilities (Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2009). This appears to translate over to other cognitive domains such as episodic memory (Schroeder et al., 2012) and task-switching (Prior & Macwhinney, 2010), a phenomenon that has become popularly labeled as “the bilingual advantage.” The literature on how bilingualism and dyslexia interact with one another in children, however, is limited and conflicting. The proposed study will provide clarification by testing whether bilingual children with dyslexia perform better or worse on specific measures of language and cognition as compared to monolingual dyslexic children. Differences that may be found can inform educators and policy makers to make appropriate adjustments in the children’s education program.