Saturday, February 26, 2011

As 'The King's Speech' Heads to Oscars, the Biology Behind a Stutter

(Editor's note: With The King's Speech poised at the top of the contending films this Oscar weekend, stutters and stammers have become easier to talk about. Freelance writer Becky Ham, who covers research on public speaking for this blog in our "Speaking Science" series, shares these insights about stuttering from a recent scientific conference--facts to keep in mind while you're watching and cheering on the film and its producers this weekend.)

When Jennifer McGuire watches home movies of her 3-year old self reciting the alphabet, she can remember all over again the sadness and anger she felt when her father had to prompt her on the letter “r.” She knew her ABCs, but once again her stuttering had made it maddeningly impossible to do the ordinary.

“Stuttering has colored my whole life,” she recently told scientists and reporters gathered at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. “Only recently has it not been the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning and the last thing before I go to bed.”

McGuire’s stutter was noticeable during her time on the podium at the AAAS conference, and the 30 year-old art therapist said she has been in some sort of speech therapy for years. But she was excited to be speaking alongside scientists who are coming at the puzzle of stuttering from some unexpected angles.

About 3 million Americans have a chronic stutter, and most people start stuttering between the ages of 2 and 4. This early start convinced many researchers for years that the speech disorder was a product of poor parenting or signs of uncontrolled nervousness. But it’s more likely that stuttering is the result of genes gone awry or brains working in overdrive, according to the experts gathered at AAAS.

Half of all people who seek therapy for stuttering have a family history of the disorder, said National Institutes of Health geneticist Dennis Drayna, who made headlines last year with the discovery of mutations in three genes that may be related to stuttering. To figure out what these mutations are doing to affect speech, he and his colleagues are genetically altering a mouse to give it a stutter—although Drayna admits that it’s still difficult to hear a stutter in high-pitched mouse talk.

“The brain actually looks different in people who stutter," said Luc De Nil, a speech disorder specialist at the University of Toronto. His brain scan studies show that people who stutter chronically often have signs of “overactivity” in parts of the brain that produces the movements related to speech. Recently De Nil and his co-workers confirmed that people who start stuttering after a strike sometimes have lesions in these same areas of the brain.

All this evidence from biology, said Purdue University speech researcher Anne Smith, makes it clear that stuttering should be treated as early as possible. She hopes her own work with 4 and 5-year olds will help reveal why nearly 75% of children who start out stuttering lost the stammer spontaneously or through early therapy.

“The severity of a child’s stutter doesn’t predict whether the stutter will disappear,” she said, so researchers are looking for other signs of persistent stuttering. Smith’s lab studies have shown that children who stutter at this early age sometimes find it difficult to clap to a beat, and move their mouths and lips differently from those who don’t stutter.

Even as scientists move closer to dispelling the myth that stuttering comes from a lack of self-confidence, the researchers agreed that the struggles of those who suffer with the disorder can lead to nervousness and frustration with public speaking.

Now pregnant, McGuire said she is excited about the future of stuttering studies. “It would be great if my child ends up being a person who stutters, but is able to have it be less mysterious , and have access to effective therapies at an earlier stage of life.”

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