What happens in the brains of people with dyslexia or dysgraphia when they read or write? That is a question that Thomas Lewis, director of the University of Washington’s Instrument Development laboratory and his team wanted to answer. The team constructed a study that involved a special pen and an fMRI to observe which neural pathways are involved in reading and writing for people with dyslexia and dysgraphia.

The experiment involved a specially designed fiber optic pen. Engineers ran two optical fibers through a ball point pen and connected it to a light-tight box. The pen’s movements were recorded as the study participants used it to go through the motions of writing. Participants “wrote” on a wooden pad of paper while their heads were scanned using an fMRI. The participants—children aged 11 to 14 with either dyslexia or dysgraphia—were asked to complete four-minute reading and writing tasks using the fiber optic pen. In between exercises, they were asked to think about composing an essay.

As the participants wrote, the researchers recorded their hand movements using the fiber optic pen. This resulted in data about when participants lift their pens, which directions they move and at what speeds, and whether they paused, along with the accompanying brain activity for each motion.

Eventually, the participants wrote the essays that they had planned out earlier. They did so without being inside an fMRI scanner. The research team found that when the participants thought about writing an essay, their neural activity was the same as if they were actually writing.

Professor of radiology and principal investigator at the UW Integrated Brain Imaging Center explained, “If you picture yourself writing a letter, there’s a part of the brain that lights up as if you’re writing the letter. When you imagine yourself writing, it’s almost as if you’re actually writing, minus the motion problems.”

The research team is still studying the exact interplay between the motor pathways and writing centers of the brain and how it affects people with reading and writing disorders like dyslexia and dysgraphia.

For information on how iLs can assist with dyslexia, please see our case studies.