Professors talk about stuttering, their research in children

Januaryt 31, 2011

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Even though the "The King's Speech" shows how a man coped with stuttering almost a century ago, the film and its Oscar buzz has people talking about the speech disorder in the 21st century, says two Purdue University stuttering experts.

"The history of stuttering goes back to the ancient Greeks when people put pebbles in their mouth to try to cure the problem," says Anne Smith, distinguished professor of speech, language and hearing sciences. "In the 1960s, parents were told to ignore their child's stuttering, and this movie even highlights some unconventional therapies. Today we know that early intervention and therapy can make a difference in that child's life. Thanks to many new studies of the onset and development of fluency problems in young children and of the neural bases of stuttering, we have learned so much in the past 20 years."

Smith and Christine Weber-Fox, a professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, study stuttering, which is an involuntary hesitation, sound prolongation or repetition of syllables in speech. Their research project has been ongoing for many years with the support of the National Institutes of Health.

"Even though a person stutters, they know exactly what they want to say," Weber-Fox says. "Our research shows that the brains of adults and school-age children who stutter function differently for both listening or silent reading as well in the coordination of movements for speaking."

About 1 percent of the world's adult population stutters, but that number is much larger for preschool-aged children. About 5 percent of four- and five-year-olds stutter, but many of them grow out of it. Smith and Weber-Fox are studying why some recover and yet others continue to stutter persistently the rest of their lives.

They are leading a five-year study, the Purdue Stuttering Project, to determine any differences between the children who recover and those who don't. By using a variety of measures - based on brainwaves, physiological signs, motor control and language - the researchers will be able to look back at the information at different age points between 4 and 9 years to determine differences between the children who eventually recover and those who do not.

"When parents ask about treatment for children, they are often told to do nothing because the child will grow out of it," Smith says. "Yes, this is true for many children, but, unfortunately, this can delay the appropriate therapy that could help those who need it. The information from our research could help us develop a diagnostic test, and if we are able to diagnose persistent stuttering at a younger age, we could better target therapy in children. We believe that early treatment is important because we have more flexibility in the brain at younger ages and it is easier to learn new patterns of speaking."

In addition to the British monarch highlighted in "The King's Speech," other famous people who have dealt with stuttering include James Earl Jones, Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill.

"We hope this film continues to draw attention to how people cope with stuttering and the research that is taking place," Weber-Fox says. "This is a serious disorder. Those who don't seek therapy or who stutter severely struggle with quality of life issues. For example, children may not raise their hand in class and adults may not speak on the phone. New discoveries could make a difference for millions of people."

Purdue's Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences is ranked one of the best in the nation by U.S.News & World Report. The graduate program in speech-language pathology was tied for No. 2 in 2008, and its doctoral program in audiology was tied for No. 9 the same year.

Writer:  Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu 

Sources:   Anne Smith, 765 494-7743, asmith@purdue.edu

                   Christine Weber-Fox, 765-494-3819, weberfox@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in broadcast-quality interviews or b-roll of Purdue professors Anne Smith and Christine Weber-Fox can contact Jim Schenke, Purdue News Service, 765-494-6262, jschenke@purdue.edu. Smith also will participate in a panel discussion, "From Freud to fMRI: Untangling the Mystery of Stuttering," on Feb. 20 at the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington, D.C. A news briefing also is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Feb. 19. For more information, contact Amy Patterson Neubert, Purdue News Service, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu  

Related websites
Purdue College of Health and Human Sciences

Purdue Stuttering Project