Study to Look at Grammar, Executive Functioning in Children With Fragile X

Yedida Y Bogachkov PhD avatar

by Yedida Y Bogachkov PhD |

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A five-year, $2.4 million grant will fund a new study of grammar skills and executive functions in preschool and school-age children with fragile X syndrome.

The grant, awarded by National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, part of the National Institutes of Health, will be evenly shared by researchers at the two universities conducting the study.

They will compare boys with fragile X and children with developmental language disorder (DLD), a condition marked by difficulties using or understanding language. A third group of children with neither disorder will serve as the control group.

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“We want to see the extent to which these two constructs [language and cognition] are separate or interrelated in clinical disorders associated with language impairments and what that looks like over a two-year developmental window,” Jill Hoover, PhD, one of the study’s lead investigators at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said in a press release.

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and is associated with cognitive impairment as well as learning and behavioral challenges, including language impairment. Issues with executive functions — a set of cognitive skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control — are also common in this patient population.

DLD is characterized by impaired language, particularly when it comes to grammar skills. These weaknesses result in a language complexity that is below age-level and can affect a child’s ability to fully comprehend others.

Grammar skills help to serve as a foundation in language development and underlie higher-level oral language skills, which directly affect reading and writing.

Executive functions tend to include processes to control thoughts and behaviors, which are “related to the planning, problem solving, decision making and adapting to environmental changes,” Hoover said.

During the research leading up to this study, Hoover and her collaborator, Audra Sterling, PhD, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that children with DLD display similar weaknesses in grammar skills as children with fragile X.

“Children with fragile X have an intellectual disability but children with developmental language disorder do not,” Hoover said. “These two clinical groups that look quite different in terms of their overall cognitive profile are strikingly similar in terms of some elements of their grammatical skills. There are, however, a few differences that we haven’t been able to explain.”

Hoover and Sterling will lead the study, taking place at their institutions, to better understand language and cognition in these two disorders.

“This is a study taking two different clinical populations and comparing them to one another on a set of skills; that’s been done before. What hasn’t been done is testing the complex relationship between grammar skills and executive functions across two clinical groups to see if that improves our understanding,” Hoover said.

Children will be recruited from across the country to travel to either Massachusetts or Wisconsin for in-person testing, with repeat testing two years later. Travel expenses for families will be reimbursed.

Hoover and Sterling hope to collect data that can be used in clinical trials directed at improving communication and everyday functioning.

“Our ultimate goal is to see how we can maximize the effectiveness of interventions kids are getting in schools,” Hoover concluded.