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Chance Discovery May Lead to New Hope for Dyslexics

May 19, 1987|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

A chance discovery--that people with dyslexia have peripheral vision vastly superior to those with normal reading skills--may yield new coping skills for victims unable to read.

This is not, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers emphasized, a cure for dyslexia, even if subsequent studies confirm the new observations.

But the findings--described last week in the New England Journal of Medicine--may provide significant new insights into dyslexia, a disorder characterized by the inability to read competently. These insights, in turn, could make it possible to devise alternative reading methods that would rely on coping skills that apparently already underly the reading abilities of dyslexics who have mastered reading.

It began two years ago, said MIT's Dr. Jerome Lettvin, when he and researcher Gad Geiger were studying peripheral vision in a research project unrelated to dyslexia. By chance, Lettvin said, the researchers identified five people who had extraordinary peripheral vision and discovered they were all dyslexic.

Later, the MIT team found that dyslexics who learn to read do so by looking--often unconsciously--at text with their eyes slightly averted so they focus on reading matter in the peripheral area--in what is technically known as the foveal field. For dyslexics, Lettvin said, images in the foveal field may have the same level of distortion that those in the peripheral area do for people with average vision--and vice versa.

If the new results are confirmed and expanded on, the two MIT experts concluded, there is at least the prospect that, for dyslexics, "an alternative reading strategy can be learned."

Minoxidil Doubts

If the drug minoxidil, now in what may be the last stages of evaluation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use as a baldness treatment, were a play struggling in New Haven to get to Broadway, the producer--in this case Upjohn Co., the drug firm--might have started to worry about the reviews. The drug is already sold in pill form to control blood pressure and a liquid version is under consideration for government approval as a baldness cure.

A growing number of scientific journals have published studies or evaluations of minoxidil's performance and potential as a baldness treatment. And these reports are not what would, in show business, be called money notices. The latest has just appeared in the British journal Lancet; it was written by three experts from England and the Netherlands.

Based on a review of earlier studies of minoxidil, the research team concluded that smearing minoxidil on the heads of bald men achieves a "cosmetically acceptable" result in about 10% of all cases. Some men prove allergic to minoxidil, with symptoms including itching, prickling and dryness of the skin. Even men judged to have "excellent" response to minoxidil were found to have only 31 additional hairs per square centimeter than bald men in a study by a doctor who later went to work for the Upjohn Co. The increase in hair volume for minoxidil users amounted to 6%.

Added to earlier concerns about the high cost of minoxidil--perhaps $1,000 a year or more--the study team concluded, the combination of factors "raise doubts about the wisdom of permitting its use for this purpose," even though "licensing of the drug . . . will create a great demand for it." In Kalamazoo, Mich., an Upjohn spokesman said the company had received a copy of the new Lancet review but had no comment on the findings. The FDA is currently considering an Upjohn application to market minoxidil in liquid form under the brand name Rogaine as a prescription-only baldness cure. An FDA advisory committee has recommended approval.

Risk and the Pill

Two Canadian physicians have developed a telling, if unorthodox, perspective on oral contraceptives, long the subject of controversy. Writing in the journal Fertility and Sterility, the doctors devised a table comparing the relative risks of a variety of activities, interposing the apparent risk levels for women in several age groups who either use the Pill and don't smoke, or take it and continue to use tobacco--a combination virtually unanimously condemned.

In this comparison, a Pill-taking cigarette smoker, age 15 to 24, has a slightly greater risk of death from this combination than her statistical chance of dying of poisoning. Still, there is more chance of her dying in a scuba diving accident than from either of those other causes. A Pill-taking smoker, 25 to 34, has a significantly greater chance of dying from the combination than she does of succumbing to a fall, but slightly less risk than she has of being murdered. A nonsmoker, 15 to 24, on the Pill has a nearly infinitesimal risk--about the same chance as she would have of dying playing football or driving a snowmobile. A Pill-using nonsmoker, 35 to 44, has only a slightly greater chance of dying of the effects than she has of being killed in a car crash.

For women who take the Pill between ages 35 and 44--and who still smoke--the risks become truly significant. Concluded the researchers, "A 40-year-old who uses oral contraceptives might better appreciate her risks knowing that it would be safer to take up the sport of hang gliding."

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