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What is a Learning Disability?

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When children have learning problems, their parents are usually the first to notice that something is just not right. Teachers often notice a child having trouble in their class. And when they notice, they want reliable information so they can help their students. LD OnLine offers accurate and up-to-date information about learning disabilities and related issues.

What is a Learning Disability?

A learning disability is a neurological disorder. In simple terms, a learning disability results from a difference in the way a person's brain is "wired." Children with learning disabilities are as smart or smarter than their peers. But they may have difficulty reading, writing, spelling, reasoning, recalling and/or organizing information if left to figure things out by themselves or if taught in conventional ways.A learning disability can't be cured or fixed; it is a lifelong issue. With the right support and intervention, however, children with learning disabilities can succeed in school and go on to successful, often distinguished careers later in life.

Parents can help children with learning disabilities achieve such success by encouraging their strengths, knowing their weaknesses, understanding the educational system, working with professionals and learning about strategies for dealing with specific difficulties.

Facts About Learning Disabilities

Facts about learning disabilities

  • Fifteen percent of the U.S. population, or one in seven Americans, has some type of learning disability, according to the National Institutes of Health.
  • Difficulty with basic reading and language skills are the most common learning disabilities. As many as 80% of students with learning disabilities have reading problems.
  • Learning disabilities often run in families.
  • Learning disabilities should not be confused with other disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, deafness, blindness, and behavioral disorders. None of these conditions are learning disabilities. In addition, they should not be confused with lack of educational opportunities like frequent changes of schools or attendance problems. Also, children who are learning English do not necessarily have a learning disability.
  • Attention disorders, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities often occur at the same time, but the two disorders are not the same.

Common Signs of Learning Disabilities

The good news about learning disabilities is that scientists are learning more every day. Their research provides hope and direction.

If parents, teachers, and other professionals discover a child's learning disability early and provide the right kind of help, it can give the child a chance to develop skills needed to lead a successful and productive life. A recent National Institutes of Health study showed that 67 percent of young students who were at risk for reading difficulties became average or above average readers after receiving help in the early grades.

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What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a condition that becomes apparent in some children in the preschool and early school years. It is hard for these children to control their behavior and/or pay attention. It is estimated that between 3 and 5 percent of children have ADHD, or approximately 2 million children in the United States. This means that in a classroom of 25 to 30 children, it is likely that at least one will have ADHD.

ADHD was first described by Dr. Heinrich Hoffman in 1845. A physician who wrote books on medicine and psychiatry, Dr. Hoffman was also a poet who became interested in writing for children when he couldn't find suitable materials to read to his 3-year-old son. The result was a book of poems, complete with illustrations, about children and their characteristics. "The Story of Fidgety Philip" was an accurate description of a little boy who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Yet it was not until 1902 that Sir George F. Still published a series of lectures to the Royal College of Physicians in England in which he described a group of impulsive children with significant behavioral problems, caused by a genetic dysfunction and not by poor child rearing—children who today would be easily recognized as having ADHD. Since then, several thousand scientific papers on the disorder have been published, providing information on its nature, course, causes, impairments, and treatments.

Treatment options

A child with ADHD faces a difficult but not insurmountable task ahead. In order to achieve his or her full potential, he or she should receive help, guidance, and understanding from parents, guidance counselors, and the public education system.

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After a Good Night's Sleep

After a Good Night's Sleep Brain Cells Are Ready to Learn

Stephanie Dutchen, National Institutes of Health
Date: 09 November 2011 Time: 03:13 PM ET


brainOn top, the brain of a sleep-deprived fly glows orange because of Bruchpilot a communication protein between brain cells. These bright orange brain areas are associated with learning. On the bottom, a well-rested fly shows lower levels of Bruchpilot, which might make the fly ready to learn after a good night's rest.
CREDIT: Chiara Cirelli, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This Research in Action article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Why do we need sleep? Some researchers think it gives our bodies a chance to repair themselves. Others think it gives our brains time to organize our thoughts. Neuroscientist Chiara Cirelli at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and others believe that a good night's sleep helps us learn more the next day.

When we learn, synapses — the connections between our brains' neurons — grow and multiply, consuming more fuel, said Cirelli. But our bodies can't handle unchecked growth and energy consumption. Sleeping slows brain activity and may return our synapses to a less excited state, she said, refreshing and preparing us for more efficient learning in the morning. Conversely, insufficient sleep may fail to reset the synapses and leave us feeling "wooly-brained" the next day.

Cirelli calls this daily rejuvenation "synaptic homeostasis." She has been testing the hypothesis in animal models such as rats, mice and fruit flies in the hope of bringing us one step closer to explaining why we sleep.

The images above show the results of one of her experiments. On top, the brain of a sleep-deprived fly glows orange. The color marks high concentrations of Bruchpilot, a synaptic protein involved in communication between neurons. The color also lights up areas of the fly's brain associated with learning.

On the bottom, a well-rested fly shows lower levels of Bruchpilot. The study suggests that sleep reduces the amount of Bruchpilot in fly brains, which might reset the brain to normal levels of synaptic activity and make the fly ready to learn after a good night's rest.

A more recent experiment by Cirelli's group showed that the branching 'fingertips' at the ends of neurons grow longer and make more connections with other brain cells after flies spread their wings for the first time. These 'fingertips,' or dendrites, then get "pruned" at night when the flies sleep, again getting them ready for a new learning experience the next day.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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