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What causes learning disabilities?

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Researchers do not know exactly what causes learning disabilities, but they appear to be related to differences in brain structure. These differences are present from birth and often are inherited. To improve understanding of learning disabilities, researchers at the NICHD and elsewhere are studying areas of the brain and how they function. Scientists have found that learning disabilities are related to areas of the brain that deal with language1 and have used imaging studies to show that the brain of a dyslexic person develops and functions differently from a typical brain.2

Sometimes, factors that affect a developing fetus, such as alcohol or drug use, can lead to a learning disability. Other factors in an infant’s environment may play a role as well. These can include poor nutrition and exposure to toxins such as lead in water or paint. In addition, children who do not receive the support necessary to promote their intellectual development early on may show signs of learning disabilities once they start school.3

Sometimes a person may develop a learning disability later in life. Possible causes in such a case include dementia or a traumatic brain injury (TBI).4


  1. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Language-based learning disabilities: Causes and number. Retrieved June 26, 2012, from http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/LBLDcauses.htm External Web Site Policy [top]
  2. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2008). Brain activity in those with dyslexia pre and post treatment: A review. Retrieved June 17, 2012, from http://www.asha.org/Events/convention/handouts/2008/1794_Kors_Alicia External Web Site Policy (PDF - 1.3 MB) [top]
  3. National Center for Learning Disabilities. (2012). What are learning disabilities? Retrieved June 26, 2012, from http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/what-is-ld/what-are-learning-disabilities External Web Site Policy [top]
  4. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2011). What is dyslexia? Retrieved June 26, 2012, from http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/dyslexia/dyslexia.htm [top]

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Last Updated Date: 11/30/2012
Last Reviewed Date: 02/28/2014
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