Structural gray matter features and behavioral preliterate skills predict future literacy – A machine learning approach


  • Beyer Moana
  • Liebig Johanna
  • Sylvester Teresa
  • Braun Mario
  • Heekeren Hauke
  • Froehlich Eva
  • Jacobs Arthur
  • Ziegler Johannes


  • MRI
  • Machine learning
  • Reading acquisition
  • Precursors
  • Prediction
  • Children

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When children learn to read, their neural system undergoes major changes to become responsive to print. There seem to be nuanced interindividual differences in the neurostructural anatomy of regions that later become integral parts of the reading network. These differences might affect literacy acquisition and, in some cases, might result in developmental disorders like dyslexia. Consequently, the main objective of this longitudinal study was to investigate those interindividual differences in gray matter morphology that might facilitate or hamper future reading acquisition. We used a machine learning approach to examine to what extent gray matter macrostructural features and cognitive-linguistic skills measured before formal literacy teaching could predict literacy 2 years later. Forty-two native German-speaking children underwent T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging and psychometric testing at the end of kindergarten. They were tested again 2 years later to assess their literacy skills. A leave-one-out cross-validated machine-learning regression approach was applied to identify the best predictors of future literacy based on cognitive-linguistic preliterate behavioral skills and cortical measures in a priori selected areas of the future reading network. With surprisingly high accuracy, future literacy was predicted, predominantly based on gray matter volume in the left occipito-temporal cortex and local gyrification in the left insular, inferior frontal, and supramarginal gyri. Furthermore, phonological awareness significantly predicted future literacy. In sum, the results indicate that the brain morphology of the large-scale reading network at a preliterate age can predict how well children learn to read.

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