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Unravelling the mystery of stuttering

30 January, 2015

It could be possible to determine whether or not a baby will stutter later on in life even before they begin to talk.

In a world-first study researchers will scan newborns with a family history of the disorder to try and find transmission problems in the parts of the brain related to speech that they know are present in older children and adults who stutter.

The study will shed light on the cause of the disorder and could revolutionise diagnosis and treatment, according to Professor Mark Onslow, Director of the University of Sydney's Australian Stuttering Research Centre.

"It will take us a step closer to understanding the cause of stuttering and … potentially lead us to discover more effective early-intervention treatments," he said.

"This would be a huge breakthrough as stuttering is only noticeable when a child starts stringing words together at two to three-years-of-age and the current window for effective treatment is so small."

Stuttering is a communication disorder which disrupts speech fluency and is reported to affect one in nine children in Australia by the age of four. To be most effective, treatment is required during the pre-school years.

The USyd's Stuttering Research Centre is teaming up with Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI) to conduct the first research in the field of stuttering to examine children's brains from birth.

Structural problems in the brain

Associate Professor Jim Lagopoulos, an expert in imaging at BMRI, said imaging research shows people who stutter have problems with the transmission of information along fibres of the brain, but it's not clear if this is a cause or an effect of stuttering.

"We currently don't know if the structural problems we see in the brain are present prior to the onset of stuttering, or result from stuttering," A/Prof Lagopoulos said.

"This is because previous studies have only examined the brains of older children and adults who have already developed a stutter.

"The scanning of newborns is a safe and well-established practice that will lead us to new understanding about what causes this disorder."

The study is funded by the Australian Research Council.

Key facts about stuttering:

  • Stuttering is a communication disorder which disrupts speech fluency
  • It affects one in nine children in Australia by the age of four
  • Chronic stuttering can interfere with social interaction and lead to social anxiety and depression
  • Around 70% of stutterers have a family history of the disorder
  • The cause of stuttering is not fully understood, although It is known that children and adults who stutter have problems with the transmission of information along the fibres of the brain in areas of speech production
  • There is an efficacious treatment, the Lidcombe Program, for pre-schoolers who start to stutter

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