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Neural evidence of allophonic perception in children at risk for dyslexia

Learning to read is a complex process that develops normally in the majority of children and requires the mapping of graphemes to their corresponding phonemes. Problems with the mapping process nevertheless occur in about 5% of the population and are typically attributed to poor phonological representations, which are in turn attributed to underlying speech processing difficulties. We examined auditory discrimination of speech sounds in 6-year-old beginning readers with a familial risk of dyslexia (n=31) and no such risk (n=30) using the mismatch negativity (MMN). MMNs were recorded for stimuli belonging to either the same phoneme category (acoustic variants of/bə/) or different phoneme categories (/bə/vs./də/). Stimuli from different phoneme categories elicited MMNs in both the control and at-risk children, but the MMN amplitude was clearly lower in the at-risk children. In contrast, the stimuli from the same phoneme category elicited an MMN in only the children at risk for dyslexia. These results show children at risk for dyslexia to be sensitive to acoustic properties that are irrelevant in their language. Our findings thus suggest a possible cause of dyslexia in that they show 6-year-old beginning readers with at least one parent diagnosed with dyslexia to have a neural sensitivity to speech contrasts that are irrelevant in the ambient language. This sensitivity clearly hampers the development of stable phonological representations and thus leads to significant reading impairment later in life.