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November 2016

New funding from the MRC to study stuttering

We will be starting our new project "Enhancing Speech Fluency in People Who Stutter" funded by the Medical Research Council UK on 1st November 2016. 

In this research study, we will use speech therapy techniques that change the way speech is produced by people who stutter and improves their speech fluency.  While people undergo this therapy, we will stimulate their brain with a weak electric current.  This form of stimulation is painless and can improve the amount and rate at which new skills are learnt.  The therapy will take place over five days. Half of the people in the study will have therapy and stimulation, while the other half will have therapy and no stimulation.  The participants and the researchers will not know who is having real stimulation and who is not.  We will measure the effects of this therapy and stimulation by measuring rates of stuttering, speech naturalness and attitudes to stuttering before and after the five days of treatment. 

We are also interested in understanding the brain abnormalities that cause stuttering.  We will use MRI brain scans to measure how brain areas involved in producing speech (motor areas) and in monitoring speech (auditory areas) communicate with each other.  We expect that the communication between the motor and auditory areas will improve as speech fluency improves.  MRI scans give us very detailed pictures of the brain's anatomy and its function.  It can also be used to see what is happening inside our mouths when we are speaking.  We will develop new ways of using MRI to scan the mouth and vocal tract during fluent speech and during stuttering.  This will provide us with new information about how people who stutter control their tongue and lips and other muscles involved in speech production.  As speech fluency improves, we expect that we will see differences in the brain and vocal tract images, which will provide us with another way of measuring the outcome of the speech fluency and brain stimulation training.

MRI scans are very noisy and are not ideal for looking at the sensitivity of the brain areas involved in listening to speech.  Also, speech is produced and understood extremely rapidly (10-12 speech sounds per second are typical in fluent speech).  MRI cannot capture these rapid changes so it is necessary to use another brain imaging method called magnetoencephalography (MEG).  MEG measures brain waves with very precise timing.  In people who stutter, researchers have shown using MEG that speech production can alter auditory signals in the brain and that the timing of these signals is abnormal in people who stutter.  We will also use MEG while people listen to and produce speech.  We hope that this work will help us to understand how altering speech feedback can improve speech fluency.  Such an understanding is critical for further development of effective therapies for stuttering.