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Stuttering Research Update: We still don’t have a clue what we’re talking about…

Disclaimer: I was grumpy at the original time of posting…

Ran across a pretty interesting study today in Movement Disorders.  The basic premise is this: Stuttering must be a (motor) movement disorder.  See?  Look at him?  He’s stuttering, and those are some pretty freaky motor movements, right?  It’s obvious.

So they took this “common sense” observation and tested it.  Sure enough, people who stutter have hyperactive motor activation patterns in our brain–and on both the right and left side.  When we talk, our brains light up like a freakin’ Christmas tree.  It’s just that prominent.

So this study is basically testing the premise that stuttering is a motor-innervation problem.  We stutter because our movement systems are somehow jacked up.  (This isn’t too far off from the fluency shaping perspective, that may suggest that we learned to speak incorrectly–and simply need to be retrained how to speak in a way that is incompatible with stuttered speech.)

So what did the researchers find?  Well, I wish they would have called me first, because I could have saved them a heckuva lot of time.  They found that stuttering does not appear to be a motor problem.  (Duh.)  What I’ve been saying for years is that the motor activation patters is not stuttering, it’s the body’s response to stuttering.  It’s the body’s attempt to compensate or otherwise “fix” the problem with additional motor activity.  If you want to find the problem of stuttering, you have to look further upstream…

Example: When your remote control isn’t working–what do you do?  You push the button harder.  (Like that will solve the dead battery!)  If you have a bilateral vocal fold lesion that is not allowing proper glottic closure–what does the body do?  Adds laryngeal hyperfunction to close the glottis (thereby amplifying the vocal fold lesion).

The body’s first answer toward self-correction is to add more force, and that’s exactly what the motor aspects of stuttering are:  The body’s solution to (the yet to be defined problem of) stuttering.

Update: Taking a little heat for my take on the article; I’m happy to review the article again and alter my stance (if needed) as time allows.

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  1. Mike Morgan
    February 19th, 2009 at 13:27 | #1

    A very nice story that Dr. Starkweather told at a conference relates to this. He was speaking about children who stutter and struggling with speech. He reminded everyone in the audience of the little pull-toys that some children pull around. Then he said that when a child pulls one of these toys and it gets stuck on a table leg that the child does not stop to go back and physically move the toy away from the leg. Rather, the child pulls harder or yanks on the string. It is a normal response to the event.


  2. Greg @ Stuttering.me
    February 19th, 2009 at 14:47 | #2

    I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Starkweather a few times before his retirement as well, and he certainly did have a great gift at presenting stuttering in ways that all can easily understand and identify/relate with. I actually wish his ’87 text was still in print; it’s the most student-friendly easiest-reading stuttering text around… 🙂


  3. February 19th, 2009 at 15:45 | #3

    I have read the whole article.
    Are you sure this results means stuttering is not a motor problem ? They tested the cortical excitability between the two hemispheres
    and found that interplay between the two hemisphere was normal…can we conclude this is not a motor problem ?

    I’m waiting for Tom Weidig analysis.

    What you said about the remote control remind me Dr Martin Schwartz’ explanation.


  4. Leo
    February 19th, 2009 at 18:34 | #4

    I disagree with you. You completely overboarded the conclusion of the study.

    As a matter of fact, what they found was just that stuttering does not appear to be related to failure of hemispheric dominance.


  5. Greg @ Stuttering.me
    February 19th, 2009 at 18:36 | #5

    Hi Oliver,

    The best analogy that I can think of is to suggest that the flu (i.e., influenza virus) is a fever problem. A fever isn’t the problem, it’s what the body does to try and solve or correct for the influenza virus. As a result, I’m reading beyond the article and questioning the premise of the mindset of the article.

    Fortunately, Tom knows all and is without err, so let’s all wait w/ baited breath…


  6. Greg @ Stuttering.me
    February 20th, 2009 at 05:50 | #6

    Hi Leo,

    The notion that stuttering is associated with hemispheric dominance is an idea put to rest decades ago due to WADA testing. Anyone with a decent grasp of the stuttering literature could have told us this in the early 80s.

    Again, I’m not posting about words on a page; I’m posting about the thought process that led to the words on the page.


  7. Rafael
    February 20th, 2009 at 06:39 | #7

    The main troubles of stuttering are not in the cortex. They are in the subcortex (basal ganglia and neighboring structures). Although technically more difficult, if they want to find something, they will have to seek further below, within innermost parts of the brain.


  8. Greg @ Stuttering.me
    February 20th, 2009 at 07:56 | #8

    Well said, Rafael


  9. ig88sir
    February 20th, 2009 at 09:15 | #9

    Isn’t stuttering white matter deficiency in the left hemisphere? It’s as we have a 56k modem and fluents have cable. We don’t have that connectivity wired up to deal with the rate of fluent conversations. That theory makes sense to me but I am no expert and please correct me if I am wrong. Also why is it so damn hard for stutterers to strengthen and grow that white matter back as we can always improve so many other aspects neurologically by practice (e.g., music, sports, math etc.)??


  10. Greg @ Stuttering.me
    February 20th, 2009 at 12:57 | #10

    Hi ig88sir,

    See–I’m not comfortable with the tenet that it’s a white matter deficiency. Every single stuttering theory thus far has confused a symptom (or characteristic) of stuttering as a cause. Anxiety and motor activation patters are just two examples.

    My whole point is that we need to stop making this same mistake over and over again. Start reassessing how we view the pathology entirely. Start trying to think outside this box that we have painted ourselves in.

    But your theory has some good face validity to it–at least at it’s powers to explain the phenomenon… but that’s not the same thing as scientific model that predicts.

    And your own point is a perfect example! Fluency shapers seem to think that speech and stuttering are not unlike a golf swing. And we can train a good golf swing. Yet, I’ve never seen any real success in fluency shaping. One or two people, here or there, but the vast majority continue to struggle on a daily basis. As a result, I have concluded that the problems of stuttering are happening *before* motor planning and activation/execution.

    Thanks for your comment!


  11. February 20th, 2009 at 15:14 | #11

    The white matter deficiency has been shown many times using IRM.

    When your overcome stuttering, the white matter deficiency don’t grow back ; your brain rather recruits neighboring areas.

    (sorry for my english langage)


  12. ig88sir
    February 25th, 2009 at 12:37 | #12

    That is interesting as stuttering children who are bilingual are much less likely to overcome stuttering than if they were monolingual. I am proof to that!

    I started to learn 2 languages at the age of 2 and low and behold started stuttering at 12 and never recovered.

    Bilingual speakers have greater white and grey matter in the left hemisphere therefore the space is taken up! It’s like the hard disk is full! If they were monolingual there would be space to recruit.


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