UCSB Professors Aid in Breakthroughs on Treatments and Neurophysiology of Stuttering


Stephani Anderson

Umm… Stuttering is a disorder that begins during childhood and may last a lifetime for some individuals. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association classifies it as disruptions in speech production, which are also known as “disfluencies.” For example, words may be repeated or preceded by “um” or “uh.”

Although disfluencies aren’t life threatening, they can negatively impact a person’s life and self-confidence. Disfluencies may hinder communication and cause one to try and hide their disorder. Presenting in front of large groups and talking with others are two examples of activities that may be extremely challenging for one who stutters. Stuttering may restrict an individual because they are concerned with how others will view and react to their “disfluent speech.”

Two new papers written by University of California, Santa Barbara professors and undergraduate students have broken ground in the areas of stuttering treatments and its physiological basis.

The first paper was written by UCSB Professors Roger Ingham, Janis Ingham, and Yoethe Wang, along with University of Georgia Professor Anne Bothe. It is a study that compares a new stuttering treatment program called Modifying Phonation Intervals (MPI) with the standard care for reducing stuttered speech, which is known as prolonged speech.

“Instead of focusing on prolonging or increasing phonation durations, persons who stutter (PWS) can reduce the frequency with which they produce short intervals of phonation while speaking,” according to the paper. Essentially, the four professors used an opposite approach to the treatment of stuttering that reduced frequency of short intervals of phonation instead of increasing long interval frequency.

After receiving the MPI treatment, 14 participants who successfully completed MPI treatment were found to be similar to adults considered normally fluent. According to the results, the participants increasingly identified as being “normal speaker[s]” and decreased identification as a “stutterer.” Eleven of the participants received MPI treatment, while the remaining three received the prolonged treatment.

These outcomes demonstrate that there was a higher proportion of successful participants in the MPI group. The professors’ results also suggest that MPI is more effective because it assisted clients with identifying and changing speech behaviors associated with successful treatments of people who have stuttered speech.

However, Professor Roger Ingham of the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences explains that there is no cure for stuttering disorder. “There is no cure, but there is a means of training people to overcome the handicap. We believe that MPI is very effective for a large number of people, but not everybody. Children are very easy to treat; they are easier to treat than adolescents and adults.” People can overcome stuttering through treatment, but there is a possibility of relapse in the future.

The second paper uses diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI) to analyze abnormalities in important pathways of language areas in the brain. This paper was written by UCSB Professor Grafton and UCSB graduate student Matthew Cieslak; both Cieslak and Grafton work in the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

DSI is a technique for sampling water diffusion using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). When enough axons are projected through white brain matter along the same path, a strong directional component in the water diffusion samples taken can be seen.

“DSI acquires diffusion-weighted images in a particular way that enables us to construct a high-resolution model of directional water diffusion inside brain tissue,” said Cieslak. “Previous methods typically take fewer diffusion-weighted scans and have trouble where there are complex axonal crossings in white matter.” Previous analysis technologies have had issues with complex crossings and are unable to scan as many samples as DSI scans, which explains why DSI could prove superior.

Cieslak hopes that the next step for their discoveries and research will involve looking at the brains of former stutterers who have completed the MPI treatment. Cieslak also says that he is currently working on using techniques to identify brain damage in people who have had concussions.

“We are really interested in being in contact with people who believe that they have recovered completely from a stuttering disorder,” says Professor Ingham. “These individuals are the most significant people who we could draw upon right now.”