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McCloskey Lab studies learning disabilities

By PAIGE FRANK | November 17, 2016

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COURTESY OF UYEN LE McCloskey works to distinguish differences in mental processes.

Michael McCloskey is a Hopkins researcher in the cognitive science department who studies individuals with learning disabilities or other cognitive impairments. He works to identify exactly where an individual’s mental processes differ from the norm.

“I really enjoy working with the people, working one on one over an extended period of time where you have the opportunity to get to know individuals and can sometimes do something to make their lives easier,” McCloskey said.

In particular, McCloskey is in the process of identifying a unique form of reading impairment that was brought to his attention by one individual. The impairment manifests as an inability to read numbers. While the individual can easily read and trace out letters or characters directed to his attention, he is unable to identify or trace out numbers.

McCloskey not only identified the individual’s unique impairment, but also worked to identify just where in the path of mental processes the impairment was occurring.

He also created a new number system for the individual so that he could continue to work as an engineering geologist without hindrance. Additionally, he even recruited a Hopkins student to create a new calculator application for the individual’s phone.

This case of reading impairment is just one of the many McCloskey has studied. Currently, McCloskey has around five to six different projects. He employs both graduate students and undergraduate students to aid in his research.

Individuals recruited to work with McCloskey’s team often remain a part of the lab for long periods of time, sometimes for multiple years.

McCloskey relates his work to solving a mystery.

“I like the problem-solving aspects of it, especially this kind of research,” he said.

In one case, a student in his class offhandedly mentioned that he has a tendency to misspell words frequently. McCloskey worked closely with this individual, gave him various tests or tasks and used MRI, functional MRI and EEG stimuli to further narrow down the source of the disability.

McCloskey, through a series of different tests, deduced clue by clue that the individual’s disability went far beyond poor spelling. He identified a tendency in the student to spatially misperceive the world around him, to see items in the wrong locations in his environment. This impairment manifested not only in poor spelling, but also in a general tendency toward mistakes, such as putting stamps on the wrong corner of envelopes or reaching in the wrong direction for an item.

This is just one instance out of many in which McCloskey uses results from different tests to piece together a diagnosis.

“When you are working with people day to day you get new results and say okay here is another clue,” McCloskey said. “It’s kind of like a detective story.”

McCloskey’s passion for cognitive science began in college as he explored various fields relevant to psychology. When he came to Hopkins after receiving his graduate degree, the research of a colleague inspired him specifically to pursue learning disabilities.

Now, McCloskey says that he loves not only the work he does, but also working with and getting to know each of the individuals he studies.

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