People of I-LABS: Maria Mittag

Vibrant, super-smart and caring: these are just a few of the qualities that describe the dozens of interdisciplinary researchers at I-LABS. Their innovative ideas and technological savviness help drive the Institute's reputation as a world leader in child development and brain science.
And their kindness, professionalism and sense of humor greet all of the hundreds of families that volunteer each year for studies at I-LABS.
In the "People of I-LABS" series, we get to know the research scientists, post-doctoral fellows and other researchers who make up the elite team at I-LABS.
Please tell us a little about yourself. Where do you come from? What are you doing at I-LABS?
I grew up in Germany and lived in Australia and Finland before moving to the US. As a postdoctoral fellow at I-LABS, I work to identify early brain markers for dyslexia in infants by using magnetoencephalography (MEG) as research method.
Why did you decide to become a researcher?
I have always been interested in the brain and its functions. During my PhD studies in Finland, I became motivated to study the infant brain because it offers the opportunity to establish early and effective intervention programs for children with developmental difficulties.
What big questions do you hope to answer with your research?
My goal is to identify early brain markers in infants at risk for dyslexia that will be used to develop early intervention tools. This will provide children with dyslexia opportunities to become up-to-speed with their typically developing peers by the time they enter school.
What research questions are you working on now?
Existing brain research on dyslexia primarily focuses on adults. My research brings a unique emphasis on the neural activity of infants who are not yet capable of reading but show a familial risk of dyslexia. One of my research questions investigates the possible link between atypical neural processing of very simple sounds in infants with a familial risk for dyslexia and later language and reading outcomes.
What inspired you to study this topic?
My prior work experience as a school psychologist gave me insight into the many challenges children with dyslexia face in their day-to-day life. My goal is to bring education and neuroscience together to develop early intervention programs for children before they enter school.
What's your most significant career accomplishment so far?
We recently discovered a possible early brain marker for dyslexia in infants as young as six months old. This atypical response to very simple sounds is unique and has not yet been reported in literature.
What's your favorite part of working at I-LABS?
I enjoy meeting and working with all of the infants and parents that participate in the infant dyslexia project. In addition, I am thankful for the opportunity to work with the incredibly talented researchers, analysts and research assistants that come to I-LABS from around the world.
What is your most exciting memory from being in the lab?
One of the most impactful aspects of my work is to experience parents with dyslexia discuss the challenges they have faced and know that our work offers the possibility to better equip their children and other future generations to overcome those challenges.
How can people use your discoveries in their own lives?
My research shows that there is more to our common understanding of dyslexia as a visual processing disorder because infants at risk for dyslexia show atypical sound processing that may have an effect on later language and reading development. Infant research offers the possibility to investigate developmental difficulties such as dyslexia early in life. Examining infants early will help to identify possible risk factors for dyslexia and may provide an option for intervention much earlier than they are currently in place.
What’s something we might not know about you? (something fun! Secret talents? Cool travels? Adorable pets?)
I received an honorary sword and top hat from the country of Finland for completing my PhD degree at the University of Helsinki.