Research Examines Biology Behind Stuttering

Medicines being tested could soon be available for treatment
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 19, 2022 12:45 PM CST
Research Looks at Science Behind Mystery of Stuttering
Colton Nover, 10, plays football Wednesday with his younger brother on their front lawn in St. Johns, Fla.   (AP Photo/Fran Ruchalski)

Holly Nover grew up trying to hide her stutter. "I was very self-conscious," said Nover, 40, of St. Johns, Florida. "So I developed habits to switch my words so it wouldn't be noticed." Her 10-year-old son Colton also has a speech impediment. More than 70 million people worldwide stutter, including President Biden. For centuries, people have feared being judged for stuttering, a condition often misunderstood as a psychological problem caused by things like bad parenting or emotional trauma. But research presented at a conference on Saturday, the AP reports, explores its biological underpinnings: genetics and brain differences.

"By understanding the biology, we’re going to decrease the stigma. We're going to increase the acceptance," Dr. Gerald Maguire said in an interview. The psychiatrist is involved in testing potential medications for stuttering based on the science. Stuttering has been documented as far back as ancient China, Greece, and Rome. But no one really had any idea what caused it until modern genetic science and brain imaging began providing clues. Researchers identified the first genes strongly linked to stuttering more than a decade ago. Imaging studies peered into the brains of adults and older children, and University of Delaware researcher Ho Ming Chow has started looking at 3- to 5-year-olds. That’s around the age many kids begin stuttering, with about 80% outgrowing it.

Chow said the imaging shows slight brain differences in young children who keep stuttering, compared with those who recover and those who never stuttered. He discussed his research Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, per the AP. For example, his team found genetic mutations related to stuttering are associated with structural abnormalities in the corpus callosum, a bundle of fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain and ensures they can communicate; and the thalamus, a relay station that sorts sensory information to other parts of the brain. Past research has also linked stuttering to the basal ganglia, brain structures involved in the coordination of movement.

Chow's colleague Evan Usler stutters, and he likened it to "yips," or involuntary wrist spasms, during golf. He said the latest evidence shows it's a disorder of the cognitive control over speech. Still, many people incorrectly believe people stutter because they are nervous—and if they just tried harder, they could stop. Speech therapy is the mainstay of stuttering treatment. But medicines now being tested could be approved for treatment in the next few years. Nover, a speech pathologist active in the National Stuttering Association, said many people will surely be interested in trying stuttering medications—though not her. She has accepted her stuttering, she said. If Colton were struggling and wanted to try medication as a teen, however, she'd be open to the idea. (Brayden Harrington wants to be "a voice for other children who stutter.")

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