This report originally ran on Jan. 7, 2007.
There are more than 3 million Americans whose spoken words might sound as if they were doctored by a disc jockey. Unexpected pauses, frequent repetitions and stretched sounds make saying "hello" seem to take an eternity. These people are stutterers.
Dennis Drayna, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, says that stuttering "is one of the great medical mysteries of [all] time." Scientists aren't sure what causes the condition, but a new device called the SpeechEasy is helping more stutterers speak clearly.
Those who have trouble speaking don't necessarily have trouble communicating in today's world of text messaging, constant e-mailing, and social networking sites. Technology allows stutterers to communicate without the spoken word, and therefore without a stutter. But no technology can take the place of human speech.
Joseph Kalinowski, a speech pathologist and stutterer himself, acknowledges that "We are in a new time where we chat, blog, text message, e-mail, use MySpace and the like." Although Kalinowski appreciates the communication benefits to be found in a growing online society, he ultimately believes that "human contact via speech and face-to-face interaction will never be replaced by the computer or its accessories.
"We have to speak, because we are social animals. We can't live without each other, despite how much we may hurt each other," says Kalinowski.
Kalinowski's stuttering created many painful childhood memories. "I remember the first day of school, and I just started to stutter so badly and these kids were brutal. These kids would ask for my name over and over," he said.
Even today, as a speech pathologist who interacts with patients daily, Kalinowski still dislikes speaking on the phone because "we calculate in milliseconds if the listener will hang up, be patient, laugh, finish what we are saying," he explained, adding that "the sting of the telephone is like a hot iron."
As a result, Kalinowski and his team at East Carolina State University invented the SpeechEasy in 2001.
The SpeechEasy fits comfortably in the ear and operates on a phenomenon known as "the choral effect."
When people who stutter speak the same material in unison with another speaker, or in a chorus, they no longer stutter.
When using the SpeechEasy, stutterers hear a delayed playback of their own voice, at a slightly different pitch, which emulates the choral effect.
The ability of the choral effect to aid speech fluency has been widely established, but only recent technological advances have allowed researchers to create a device that would be small enough to fit inside the human ear.
The device does not cure stuttering -- it aids speech, just as eyeglasses help people with poor vision see clearly.
"This is the beginning of the new era for the person who stutters," Kalinowski says. "Genetics and brain scans all point to a biological origin."
Dennis Drayna's work traces the cause of stuttering to human genes. Experts believe that 50 percent of stutterers are believed to have inherited the condition. A genetic cause, Drayna says, "could allow us … to guide therapy strategies for different groups of people, depending on what mutation you do or don't have."