Finding your voice. Fighting for your voice to be heard. Speaking up and demanding others listen. It’s an endless list.
For stutterers – approximately 70 million worldwide – we are fighting our voice daily. It doesn’t beat us, but it certainly puts roadblocks in our collective paths.
Each roadblock is uniquely personal, yet shares a common thread with other stutterers. Some, like my inability to order at a drive-thru, can be considered a bonus. Talk about an excellent way to avoid fast food.
Now, that’s an idea for a dieting fad. Book publishers, the contact page is located in the menu.
Others can be infuriating and cause some of the most crippling anxiety you can imagine.
Reading aloud? I struggle to vocalize the simplest of words, yet have been able to read faster than my peers all my life.
Repeat what I said? Oh great, there goes my perfect fluency on that sentence. However, if I can borrow a few key phrases from Samuel L. Jackson, I’m perfectly fluent. Dropping f-bombs in normal conversation isn’t socially acceptable, so I have to pick and choose my battles.
Bridge words. Each stutterer has their own set, and our brains have a sense of humor. Mine? They vary from year-to-year, but a 32-year old guy in Alabama? How about ‘like’ and ‘and stuff.’ I always dreamed of sounding like a stereotypical valley girl. Stepping back, it’s hilarious and at times, depressing.
The personal story leads us to the breakthrough by researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis.
Mice and Stuttering
Researchers gave select mice a genetic mutation and recorded the young mice in the first week of their life. What they found were halting patterns and pauses in the squeaks of the mutated mice over normal mice.
Other vocal skills remained static. The mutated mice could make the same sounds and possessed the same range as their unmutated counterparts.
What does it mean for stutterers? Scientists have unlocked a potential animal model for stuttering.
Terra Barnes, a lead author of the study published in Current Biology, remarked on the breakthrough:
“These mice aren’t stuttering, but they show a lot of features that are similar to a human that stutters, so this is an incredibly powerful research tool. This is a huge first step towards an animal model of stuttering.”
“Once you have an animal model for the condition, you can do a lot of things you can’t do with humans. We can find the neural correlates of stuttering, identify the underlying biological mechanisms, and maybe work out how to fix it,” she added.
It opens the pathway to more efficiently trial drugs and other treatment protocols against the condition, versus the haphazard approach today. I remember driving to Atlanta every couple of months for the Pagoclone trial that ended up being scrapped.
I know the endless amount of searches I conducted online for a drug that mimicked the not total, but damn better than nothing effectiveness of the drug trial. It’s an incessant repetition of great weeks followed by a terrible fluency day or week(s).
Having an animal model? It’s a light at the end of the tunnel for 70 million people.
The Path Towards an Animal Model
History has seen stuttering blamed on a host of issues. Anxiety, stress or behavioral issues. All can play a role in exacerbating the problem, but a 2008 study out of Oxford determined the cause was biological. Changes occur in the brain that disrupts the neural pathways needed for fluency.
It was this research that led to the discovery of mutations in a gene called Gnptab. Though the research, the team led by Dennis Drayna at the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders in Maryland discovered the gene mutation could cause stuttering in humans.
The discovery was a bit of a shock considering the gene in question is associated with housekeeping duties of digesting the waste inside out cells.
To find out if they could replicate human stuttering behaviors in mice, Barnes, Drayna and their respective teams created mice that carried the mutation. For eight days, the mice were recorded in 3.5-minute sessions.
For the mutated group, each produced a third fewer sounds with prolonged pauses between the squeaks they did produce. Single syllable squeaks were more prevalent among the mutated set versus the unmutated group.
Comparing the data to humans, the pauses line up closely with the blocks stutterers encounter and the single syllable squeaks mimic the rapid repetitive stutter.
Common in young children, developmental stuttering affects around one in 20. It generally resolves with little to no treatment. Persistent stuttering is more likely to occur with men, with the ratio being 4:1 when compared to women.
Stuttering came to the forefront of the public thanks to The King’s Speech, which chronicled the stammer of King George VI. It pulled double duty as both a great movie and letting the world into the lives of stutterers.
Treatments center around speech therapy. It can be highly effective in some at resolving some of the blocks and teaching sufferers how to cope. Other options include electronic speech devices. Designed to mimic choral speech, the devices are effective but suffer if they are not used in a perfect setting.
Having the auditory feedback to simulate choral speech is great in a quiet room. On a date in a loud restaurant? Not so much.
The last option is the one I opted for after loving the results I had with Pagoclone. Drug therapy. Is it perfect? No, and I’m sure people will not approve. That’s fine, but it allows me to pick up a phone. Allows me to read aloud semi-fluently. Allows for a host of activities I dreamed of for years.
I’m not oblivious to the fact it’s an imperfect option. And that’s why the research outlined above is important. An animal model opens the doors for research we could only dream about a few short years ago.
A stuttering cure? I’ll lend my absurdly optimistic viewpoint and say it’s a giant step in the right direction.