Local workshops aim to help children with reading, attention

A Solana Beach neuroscientist is aiming to help children read better by using a unique method she developed decades ago.

Teri Lawton will present two local workshops for her PATH training this month, where parents can learn how this technique might be beneficial to their children.

The first workshop will take place March 9 at 2:15 p.m. at the Encinitas Library, followed by a session at the Del Mar Library on March 16 at 2 p.m.

Lawton said the technique — which is similar to a game where children study moving images — has been successful in helping thousands of users, ages five and older, improve their reading speed, attention span and memory retention.

Lawton recently spoke about her program and how it works.

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This Q&A has been shortened for length.

Teri Lawton
(Brittany Woolsey)

Q: How does PATH training work?

A: We have patterns that we display and flash on the computer screen for less than half a second. These patterns have been found to improve the functioning of the 'where pathway' in the brain. So, normally your brain sees where something is moving or where it is and then it analyzes what's there. For children with reading problems, the brain is activated at the same time by the where and what pathways, so that person doesn't know where the beginning and end of a word is before they try to analyze the letters. Just doing this really fast brain exercise, this training makes it so that your brain can see the beginning and end of the word before it tries to analyze the letters.

Q: Who do you see this being ideal for?

A: Children with reading, attention or remembering problems. It turns out that the where pathway is the input to the attention network.

Q: What is the history of this method?

A: I developed it for my Ph.D. dissertation in the late '70s because, at that time, people were saying there were no cells in the brain that were activated by where something was located. I was a computer programmer then, so I just thought, 'Oh, they just don't have the right computer program to measure this.' I created it to find out the characteristics of the brain for locating objects in space. Only after I developed it did I discover that it really helped people.

The first person that I helped was myself. I happened to have been riding a bicycle without a helmet, and an Edison truck hit me. Basically, I had to learn how to talk, walk and do everything all over again. I happened to be developing this program for my dissertation, so using it made it go away so that 11 months later, I took my qualifying exams for my doctorate when the neurologist said it would be a minimum of 14 years before I could do this.

I recently had a car accident, and I called up the UC San Diego head of neurology and wanted to know what's out there to help people who get a concussion. They said there's nothing. There are no proven methods to help somebody if they get a concussion. I am trying to set up a randomized, controlled study to show that this really helps traumatic brain injury patients with a concussion.

Q: How often should a child engage in these exercises?

A: Normally, the exercises take between five and 10 minutes. If they want to do a whole training cycle, which would take about 10 to 15 minutes, they would do it every other day or they could do half a training cycle every day, which would be about five minutes. We find that anywhere from two to three months is needed. It takes three months to go through both programs. Each program has 16 levels of complexity so that the person's always challenged to do better and doesn't get bored. We've never found any bad side effects, like headaches, that other, more complicated programs have reported. The child just finds this to be fun and challenging.

Q: What kinds of images are they looking at?

A: Basically, what they are are dimmed, gray stripes. They move left or right in a little circle that's shaped like a fish, so we call it the 'fish game.' They see if those stripes go left or right, and there's always a striped background that surrounds this center fish. We've found that's really important because it gives you a frame of reference to see the center stripes going left or right. The kids press a left or right arrow key on the computer. Every time they get it right, the stripes in the center get dimmer and dimmer until they completely disappear. If you can see the stripes moving dimly, you get a fish in a net. They really like that and know right away if they're getting it correct.

Q: How does your process compare to other methods?

A: Brain imaging has shown that we're improving the function of the attention network and the where pathway, which is called the dorsal stream. There's been research showing that this pathway is focused on where an object is located since 1980. There's been a lot of data but people don't really understand that concept. Most of the programs out there, what they're doing is they're improving the function of the 'what pathway.' Those programs have high-contrast patterns that are colored, and those patterns don't activate the where pathway. To activate the where pathway, the patterns have to be dimmed and grayscale. That's why there aren't any other programs that improve the reading and attention of many of these children and why their results are only temporary. They're trying to fix a pathway that doesn't have these issues.

When a child has slow processing speeds, then they need this program. The other programs don't speed up this pathway, and that's why we think they don't last and why, after a while, the benefits have gone away. With most programs you get trained on, they only help you with that particular type of situation. We've found that PATH — which is training on whether these stripes are moving left or right — generalizes to all different types of learning. Standardized tests of cognitive skills have shown that these programs really improve in reading, speed, comprehension and working memory, both visual and auditory.