Nonverbal learning disability has long been considered a disorder that does not quite merit its own diagnosis. New research out of Michigan State University may change that. Researchers Jodene Fine, assistant professor of school psychology in the College of Education, and Kaylla Musielak, a doctoral student in school psychology, used brain imaging to search for anatomical differences unique to nonverbal learning disability (NVLD). Although they did not find enough evidence to designate NVLD as a discrete diagnosis, their work does raise the possibility of NVLD being a stand-alone disorder.

The researchers evaluated the brains of 150 children, aged eight to 18 using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The children first underwent an MRI. Then, they watched videos that portrayed examples of negative and positive social interaction, like a child being bullied by other kids or a child opening a gift with a friend. After watching the videos, another MRI was done.

The images indicated that some of the children with NVLD had smaller spleniums than their peers with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, or with no learning disorders. The splenium is a part of the corpus callosum that connects the brain’s left and right hemispheres, facilitating communication between the two sides. The researchers discovered that the brains of the children with NVLD responded differently to the videos than those of the children with HFA, which suggests that there may be underlying neurological differences between the two.

Children with NVLD often have normal language skills, but they exhibit difficulties with math and visual puzzles. Since they also have trouble responding to social cues, NVLD is sometimes mistaken for autism or high-functioning autism (HFA).

Fine and Musielak stress that more research is necessary before NVLD can be deemed its own disorder or not, but the findings to offer some insight into how nonverbal learning disability relates to other disorders. This research may lead to a more concrete definition of NVLD. It may also spur the development of more appropriate interventions.

“Children with nonverbal learning disabilities and Asperger’s can look very similar, but they can have very different reasons for why they behave the way they do … So what we have is evidence of a structural difference in the brains of children with NLVD and HFA, as well as evidence of a functional difference in the way their brains behave when they are presented with stimuli,” explained Fine.

This research is published in the journal Child Neuropsychology.

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