Just one week of intensive speech therapy can reduce stuttering and produce speech changes, indicating reorganization in brain areas associated with stuttering, a new Chinese study shows -- literally, using brain imaging.
However, the Stuttering Foundation cautioned against the suggestion there is a "quick fix" for stuttering.
"It's important that the public understands that suggesting that one week of therapy can reorganize the brain is not right," cautioned Jane Fraser, president of the foundation.
"... A week of therapy can make changes but the key is having it last, and to us it won't have any value unless we can see results three months later," she said. "What's exciting is that it gets out to the public that when you work on this with therapy, there really are changes to the brain."
The small study by scientists at Beijing Normal University in the People's Republic of China included 15 people with persistent developmental stuttering who received intensive treatment, and 26 subjects who did not receive treatment. The study was published in the journal Neurology.
During the intensive therapy, participants were asked to repeat two-syllable words that were spoken to them, and then they read aloud words that were shown to them. The week-long intensive therapy included three sessions per day, and the subjects were also required to practice the new speech patterns on their own.
The other 26 people, which included 13 stutterers and 13 non-stuttering control subjects, were not given any type of treatment.
Brain images were taken of all participants before the study began and then one week later after the 15 subjects had experienced the intensive therapy. The MRI scans measured the thickness of the cerebral cortex, a brain area known to play a key role in language, and the scans also measured interactions between areas of the brain while subjects were at rest, called the resting state functional connectivity.
People who stuttered had increased levels of interactions in the cerebellum compared to control subjects. They also had reduced thickness and strength of interactions in an area called the pars opercularis, which is known to be important in speech and language.
The intensive therapy caused the resting brain states in the cerebellums of stutterers to have the same activity levels as the non-stuttering control subjects, but therapy did not change activity in the pars opercularis area.
"These results show that the brain can reorganize itself with therapy and that changes in the cerebellum are a result of the brain compensating for stuttering," study author Chunming Lu said in a written statement, adding, "They also provide evidence that the structure of the pars opercularis area of the brain is altered in people with stuttering."
Explaining the significance of the study, pediatric neurologist Dr. Jeffrey Buchhalter, a member of the American Academy of Neurology, stressed that "sometimes stuttering is thought of still as being all psychological. Like other disorders of the nervous system, it can be exacerbated by stress, but it's not a psychological or psychiatric problem."
Buchhalter said another significant finding of the study is that it demonstrates the success of therapy using medical biomarkers in the form of medical imaging. "What's cool about this study is that it shows there's a test that can be used to monitor an intervention. This is important because one can demonstrate that not only does it work, but that it can be demonstrated over time."
This study will need to be replicated in future studies with larger populations, and Buchhalter and Fraser both noted the importance of having longer-term studies that show whether the effects of intensive therapy hold. Fraser emphasized the importance of therapy on a continual basis, saying the those who are most successful in eliminating their stuttering constantly work at it.
Both experts echoed the sentiment that the findings of this study should motivate researchers and those who are working with stuttering, showing them that results can be produced rather quickly, and seen in the brain. The key is maintaining those changes to keep stuttering from returning.