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Christine Weber-Fox

Professor of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences

Tracking stuttering — discovering the mysteries beneath the disorder

Four to five percent of preschool children stutter. Worldwide. Most outgrow it, but one percent of the general population endures a lifelong struggle with basic communication. Christine Weber-Fox is beginning to understand why.

Over the course of a five-year National Institute of Health sponsored study called the Purdue Stuttering Project, Weber-Fox and colleagues from speech, language, and hearing sciences are finding the common denominators among stutterers. The longitudinal study began with groups of 4-year-olds who both stutter and are normally fluent. Returning to the Purdue labs every year for five years, the children are tested on a variety of physiological fronts, as well as with speech and language measures.

“Half a group of 4-year-olds will recover from stuttering and half of them will persist,” says Weber-Fox, who will be analyzing data from up to 90 children who collectively stutter, but may recover; stutter permanently; and have normal language skills. “Right now we don’t have any good way of predicting which course of recovery they’re going to be on.”

Weber-Fox says stuttering is a multi-factorial disorder — one that is not the same for everyone. Interactions between speech motor-control issues, anxiety or emotional levels, and atypical brain-wave activities for language could all put a speaker on pause. “All these things are likely to be weighted differently in individuals,” she says.

A cognitive neuroscientist, Weber-Fox uses electro-caps to measure how the brain responds to these kinds of input. “Children watch cartoons and hear sentences that may not make sense, or be grammatically incorrect,” she says. “For example, the children may hear, ‘Pingu likes to eat his yummy music,’ which causes a signature brain event. They don’t have to tell us if a sentence sounded strange to them. We can tell by their brain waves.”

It’s the long-range benefits of the Purdue Stuttering Project that excites Weber-Fox most. With yearly measures providing specific details on both children who stutter and those who recover, researchers can “go back in time to look at the detailed profiles of each child,” she says. “We can see if there’s something about a combination of things that may have predicted their course of recovery and better identify high-risk children.”

The profiles should lead to more tailored treatment for stuttering. “This project will contribute to the big picture of better understanding stuttering by looking at it earlier with children,” Weber-Fox says. “What can we understand about the disorder as it is developing closer to the onset?”

Photos by: Andrew Hancock