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family history: the oldest potential remedy?

Dr. Bob Harrison, of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and a researcher with The Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network, wants to open your mind - literally and figuratively.

Harrison believes that if we can catch and correct a hearing impairment early enough, it can help a child avoid a lifelong speech, language and literacy deficiency. It is that simple, and that profound.

Language and literacy evolve as complex behaviours based on fundamental building blocks ≠ Harrisonís research is focused on the development of basic biological mechanisms of hearing. In particular he is interested in the patterns of neural activity that represent sounds in the brain, and their transmission from the ears to various parts of the brain.

In laymanís terms, Harrison believes that too many interventions are remedial (focused on therapy or improving social environments) too long after the biological damage is done. He wants to study more on how the brain develops to achieve complex language and literacy tasks. He believes that during very early childhood, adequate hearing is important for such development, and therefore early detection of sensory problems is essential.

"Many years ago, scientists focused on understanding human visual systems in a biological sense," says Harrison. "This led to practical solutions based on earlier vision deficiency detection and correction. They made a difference that you can see today."

Harrisonís aim is to achieve the same results in the study of auditory systems.

"I believe that most deficiencies stem back to developmental issues. We know a lot of kids have (language and literacy) problems - we donít know enough about the root causes, the biological processes. It all comes down to the neurons not developing or making appropriate connections in the brain, and I want to bring everyone back to that level."

"Through our research, we will understand in more detail auditory system development and what auditory stimulation is required for normal development. What weíre doing is unique - modelling situations such as hearing loss in human infants, and revealing how sounds are represented in auditory areas of the brain.

If we can understand these formative influences on auditory mechanisms in infants, we can recognize problems, detect them earlier and correct the root causes of language deficiency."

This is a huge challenge with an amazing potential: Harrison believes his research can add value to the social and applied sciences stage of the language and literacy discussion.

"By understanding the fundamental issues, we can make change happen."


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