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Research Review: Emanuel Miller Memorial Lecture 2012 – Neuroscientific studies of intervention for language impairment in children: interpretive and methodological problems



Background:  Our ability to look at structure and function of a living brain has increased exponentially since the early 1970s. Many studies of developmental disorders now routinely include a brain imaging or electrophysiological component. Amid current enthusiasm for applications of neuroscience to educational interventions, we need to pause to consider what neuroimaging data can tell us. Images of brain activity are seductive, and have been used to give credibility to commercial interventions, yet we have only a limited idea of what the brain bases of language disorders are, let alone how to alter them.

Scope and findings:  A review of six studies of neuroimaging correlates of language intervention found recurring methodological problems: lack of an adequate control group, inadequate power, incomplete reporting of data, no correction for multiple comparisons, data dredging and failure to analyse treatment effects appropriately. In addition, there is a tendency to regard neuroimaging data as more meaningful than behavioural data, even though it is behaviour that interventions aim to alter.

Conclusion:  In our current state of knowledge, it would be better to spend research funds doing well-designed trials of behavioural treatment to establish which methods are effective, rather than rushing headlong into functional imaging studies of unproven treatments.