Kenneth Pugh receives award from NIH

December 18, 2017

Associate Professor Kenneth Pugh has received the prestigious Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The award is given to experienced, outstanding principal investigators with promising research projects, and provides funding for a minimum of five years. MERIT recipients do not apply for the award themselves; instead, they must be nominated by one of the twenty-seven institutes and centers that comprise the NIH. Kenneth was nominated by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) for a project entitled Tracking Neurocognitive Changes during Evidence-Based Reading Instruction in Typically and Atypically Developing Children.

Kenneth’s research focuses on the neurocognitive foundations of reading and reading disabilities. In his MERIT project, Kenneth is investigating the effects of treatment programs that help children with reading disabilities improve their reading skills. Previous studies, comparing the brains of children before and after completing a treatment program, have identified specific changes that take place in children who have successfully improved their literacy as a result of the treatment program. These changes may serve as a “neural signature” that can be used to detect whether or not treatment was successful for a patient: if the changes have taken place, then treatment was successful; otherwise, the treatment was unsuccessful.

The discovery of the neural signature was a key step in understanding the neurological underpinnings of reading disabilities. However, the causes of these changes in reading-disability patients are still not understood. In particular, among groups of children who attain similar scores on standardized tests, some experience dramatic neurological changes after treatment, while others only experience slight changes. The goals of Kenneth’s project, therefore, are to closely examine reading-disability patients during the course of their treatment to discern how the brain responds to specific aspects of the treatment, and potentially uncover the reasons why treatment is more effective for some patients than for others.

To answer these questions, Kenneth will follow children through a twenty-week course of treatment that teaches them to associate written letters with speech sounds. During the twenty weeks, patients’ brain activity will be recorded eight times using functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), a technique that uses low-frequency light to monitor the movement of blood throughout the brain. The fNIRS recordings will be complemented with the results of reading performance tests given to the patients each week. With this experimental setup, Kenneth will be following three specific lines of inquiry. Firstly, he will try a variety of different treatment methods to compare their effects on the patients. Secondly, he will be looking for correlations between the fNIRS recordings and the performance test results to see whether certain changes in the brain can indicate progress in the treatment program. Finally, Kenneth will observe how the brain changes as children learn to recognize increasingly bigger units of written symbols, from individual letters and speech sounds to full words.

More details regarding Kenneth’s award can be found in a YaleNews article and on the NIH website. Kenneth is the President and Director of Research at Haskins Laboratories, where he is a Senior Scientist. In addition to being an adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Linguistics, Kenneth is also affiliated with the Department of Radiology & Biomedical Imaging, the Department of Pediatrics, and the Department of Psychology at the University of Connecticut.

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