Researchers at the University of Sydney are conducting a world first study they say could shed new light on what causes stuttering.
For the first time, babies with a family history of the disorder are being scanned to see if there are changes in their brain present before they start speaking.
Professor Mark Onslow from the university’s Australian Stuttering Research Centre said the precise causes of stuttering remained a mystery.
“We have a strong feeling it’s a problem with neural speech processing which means people who stutter just can’t make the muscular movements they need quickly enough to be able to talk like everyone else,” he said.
It is known that children and adults who stutter have changes in the parts of the brains which process speech.
“The question is … is that a cause of stuttering or a result of stuttering,” Professor Onslow said.
“The only way to sort it out is to scan these babies who are at risk of stuttering to see if there are any of those brain problems present at birth.”
Forty babies will be scanned, 20 with a family history, and 20 with no family members who stutter.
Associate Professor Jim Lagopoulos, from the Brain and Mind Research Institute, said this was the first research in the field of stuttering to examine children’s brains from birth.
“The scanning of newborns is a safe and well established practice that will lead us to new understanding about what causes this disorder,” he said.
Baby Levi scanned after sister’s struggles
Seventeen-week-old Levi Crellin is the first baby to take part in the study.
He had an MRI looking at the parts of his brain governing speech because his sister Zoe had a severe stutter which affected her development.
His mother Naomi said Zoe’s stutter went away but then came back with a vengeance.
“Around two-and-a-half it got worse and worse to the point she would give up speaking and point instead,” she said.
Zoe had treatment with the Lidcome Program developed at the University of Sydney.
After eight months of treatment, her stutter has completely gone.
Researchers say stuttering is common, affecting one-in-nine children aged under four.
Seventy per cent of children and adults who stutter have a family history.
Ms Crellin said she was happy for Levi to take part in the unique study.
“We would love to know if Levi has something [that] indicates he may be a stutterer so we can jump on it as soon as it occurs, ” she said.
Researchers to study children for 6 years
Unlocking whether brain changes are present at birth in high-risk babies could revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment for stuttering.
Researchers want to follow the babies in the study as they become toddlers, up to the age of six to see which babies go on to develop a stutter.
“It will give us an answer to the question that parents ask when kids begin to stutter, why has this happened to my child?” Professor Onslow said.
The research is funded by the Australian Research Council.
For further information on the study parents can contact the Australian Stuttering Research Centre at the University of Sydney via email email@example.com or phone (02) 9351 9061