Stuttering: Is It in Your Genes?

NBCUniversal, Inc.

About three million people in the U.S. have a chronic stutter including President Joe Biden, and actors James Earl Jones, and Bruce Willis. Stuttering is a speech disorder in which the flow of speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables, words, or phrases. There is currently no cure, but a recent discovery is putting researchers a step closer to one.

Communication, socioeconomic status, and even employability are some challenges that people who stutter face.

Some believe those who stutter have lower intelligence or the stutter is a result of a childhood trauma.

“This has all been proven to be false. The one thing we know about stuttering is that it is absolutely genetic,” associate professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Jennifer “Piper” Below, PhD, reassures.

Now, researchers have been able to pinpoint some genes that are associated with stuttering. These include genes linked to a dopamine pathway.

“Suggesting that there might be something about how the brain is processing and signaling that could be disrupted in stuttering,” Professor Below adds.

Professor Below and colleagues imputed these set of traits in a databank with 100,000 genetic samples.

Professor Below explains, “We were able to identify almost 10,000 people who our algorithm predicted might stutter.”

One of those 10,000 people include co-author of the study, Professor Robin Jones, PhD. 

“The stuttering that I had; it began at four years of age. For people who stutter, they know exactly what they want to say, but they are not able to say it,” Professor Jones exclaims.

Now, this may be the first step in giving them that voice.

Professor Jones adds, “Communication is a quintessential aspect of the human experience. Hopefully, by doing this work, we will be able to develop treatments.”

The researchers have a partnership with the genomics company, 23-and-me, where they look at the DNA samples of more than 100,000 people who self-report they stutter and a million who say they don’t to identify any additional genes that are associated. Professor Below says children who stutter are roughly half boys and half girls. However, girls are more likely to recover from their stutter as they hit their pre-adolescent years.

Contributors to this news report include: Milvionne Chery, Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer, Editor.

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