Feature

Purdue University psychologist Jeffrey Gilger, PhD, made an interesting discovery while collaborating on a study on developmental dyslexia at the University of Georgia: Three of six family members had trouble learning to read as children, yet their ability to recognize patterns and rotate objects in space--parts of nonverbal IQ tests--peaked in the superior range.

Gilger, professor and associate dean for discovery and faculty development in Purdue's College of Education, saw a rare opportunity to study in depth a population exemplifying "twice exceptionality"--in this case both dyslexia and giftedness. And he plans to do just that with the three yearly installments of $25,000 he's landed through the American Psychological Foundation's Esther Katz Rosen Grant for Research on Gifted Children. Gilger will collaborate with Tom Talavage, PhD, and George Hynd, PhD, both of Purdue, and Julianna Sanchez Bloom, PhD, of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Specifically, he'll use brain imaging to investigate the neurodevelopmental underpinnings of the family members' twice exceptionality--a valuable investigation because giftedness and such reading disabilities as dyslexia may co-occur much more frequently than people realize, says Camilla Benbow, EdD, chair of the Esther Katz Rosen committee.

"Clues on the neurological bases of developmental disabilities already have emerged, but relatively little is known about extreme giftedness," says Benbow, dean of education and human development at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College.

A gifted family

In his initial study, Gilger found a potential culprit for the family's twice-exceptionality--they had an extra gyrus, or fold, in the parietal region of the brain.

In fact, brain scans revealed the same extra fold in autopsy studies of Albert Einstein's brain, leading Gilger to wonder if this type of gyrus may be responsible for patterns of gifts and deficits.

"That Einstein may have been a [nonverbally] gifted dyslexic, or language disordered, like our family, makes this even more intriguing," Gilger says.

What's more, when the researchers examined extended family members, they found that high nonverbal IQ runs in the family more--suggesting a genetic basis for the superior ability. In fact, the majority of family members held jobs as plumbers, engineers, artists, contractors and electricians--occupations that don't require language skills, but that often require nonverbal talents.

"There may be a gene or genes that cause the brain to grow in such a way that it is at risk for problems and gifts at the same time," Gilger says.

With the Rosen grant, Gilger will further study the same family members and compare them with at least 15 other participants: Five purely gifted nonverbally, five purely with reading disorders and five with both characteristics. The participants will complete math and reading problems while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. Genetic studies are also planned.

Toward better learning

Gilger says he hopes that some day his findings can help teachers identify giftedness and learning disability earlier--especially when they occur in combination. If psychologists and teachers can target twice-exceptional people at an early stage, then they can target teaching methods to their academic strengths toward helping their weaknesses.

Gilger also hopes his findings might improve psychologists' understanding of the brain structures that underpin language and higher-order nonverbal abilities.

What's more, this line of research may lend insight into the development of verbal and nonverbal IQs among gifted people and the population at large, says Gilger. In fact, the two abilities may be intertwined in certain populations.

"These are very special people--we can foster their talents and help them grow," Gilger says.