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Research looks at stuttering differences in boys, girls

A Michigan State University researcher is hopeful that a recent National Institutes of Health grant she received will result in better treatment options and, ultimately, better lives for children who stutter.

Soo-Eun Chang, assistant professor of communicative sciences and disorders, will use a $1.8 million grant to conduct a five-year longitudinal study on brain development of children who stutter. The grant is from the NIH's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Chang and colleagues will begin following children's development when they are between 4 and 6 years of age. She is specifically searching for brain clues to explain how stuttering differs between males and females.

"Previous studies have shown that girls are more likely to recover from childhood stuttering," Chang said. "We know that at 2 to 4 years of age, boys and girls stutter more equally. For some reason, there's a change that occurs when they are 4 to 6 years old. The girls start to recover within about two years, and often boys do not."

Chang will be studying brain scans of the children to see whether boys' and girls' brains develop differently to enable some to recover, and others to go on to have chronic stuttering for the rest of their lives.

"This work will hopefully change the face of stuttering diagnosis and treatment," she said. "It's the first series of studies to identify neural reasons for early childhood stuttering, and sexual differences that lead to recovery or persistence of stuttering."

Stuttering affects about 5 percent of children during the early stages of speech acquisition. Many of these children recover naturally, but some do not, leaving about 1 percent of the population who suffer from chronic developmental stuttering.

"This is a speech disorder that is notoriously difficult to treat," Chang said, and can be debilitating for some people who might experience social or occupational rejection.

"There is a misperception that stuttering is caused by anxiety, that it is behavioral," she said. "In the vast majority of cases, stuttering is not due to a psychiatric condition or low IQ. We have strong evidence now that stuttering is caused by subtle neural deficits that disrupt interactions between different parts of the brain that are critical for fluid speech production."

Her interest in this research comes from her own firsthand training as a speech-language pathologist. Her doctoral and postdoctoral research allowed her to conduct brain imaging studies using MRI on children and adults who stutter, and now she's hoping to take stuttering research to a new level and to help parents and children.

"Parents will be able to see their child's brain growth in this study, and they will be contributing to treatment solutions for people who stutter," she said. "We expect to learn more about the causes of this speech disorder, and to learn better ways to diagnose, prevent and treat it."


Contact: Tom Oswald
Michigan State University

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