"Dyslexia is a huge societal problem, affecting one out of five children in Europe," says Franck Ramus of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). "Although not as widespread compared to other diseases, it presents a major handicap to those that suffer from it."
CNRS is one of 13 partnering organisations from nine European countries involved in NEURODYS, a project funded under the "Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health" section of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The purpose is to determine the biological and environmental factors involved in the disease.
"There's been a lot of research on dyslexia over the last 30 years, mainly on a cognitive and brain basis," told Dr Ramus. Neurological research suggests dyslexia is caused by some abnormality in the function of the left side of the brain which controls the lexical system, whereas cognitive research in recent years has increasingly focused on problems of phonological awareness - the awareness of the speech sounds within words. This has led to some speculation that these problems may be associated with a specific area of the brain. However, much of the research has been inconclusive.
"The NEURODYS project will also study dyslexia from the cognitive and brain basis but the main emphasis will be on its genetic basis," said Dr Ramus. "Although there has been some preliminary work done on dyslexia in the field of genetics, it was only with the mapping of the human genome in 2003, that real molecular studies on dyslexia could start." Specifically, the project will explore the links between the underlying active brain regions and risk-conferring genes.
One of the challenges of conducting a pan-European genetics study on dyslexia is the exceptionally large dataset required. Over a three-year period, the project aims to collect samples from a total of 4,000 children, coming from different countries across Europe to allow researchers to take into account language and environmental specificities.
A total of 2,000 samples have been collected so far and work has begun to develop a database. "This will be the world's largest databank," said Dr Ramus, who expects to see it get even bigger in the months to come. "There is mounting interest by US research groups to merge with us and create a transatlantic project on dyslexia."
By integrating new data at the molecular, cerebral and behavioural levels from across the different countries, the project partners expect to gain a deeper insight into which aspects of dyslexia are universal, and which are specific to each language. It will also enable scientists to establish a solid basis for improving diagnosis and treatment.
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