Device May Help Stop Stutter

-- Wesley Cook is, in most regards, a success. An adored big brother and popular college senior who is graduating this December first in his class. And he's accomplished all that in spite of a very real handicap that's been almost impossible to beat — stuttering.

His parents watched him struggle with his disorder for two decades, wishing they could do anything to help their son.

"For there to be even a chance that he could be helped at all and help boost his self esteem and self-confidence is a miracle," says his mother, Debbie Cook. "It's just something we've wished for so long — for him to talk."

Joe Kalinowski knows the feeling all too well. "I see the pain in these children and I go, 'Oh, now I remember.'"

"I prayed every night," he says. "Take off my arm, God, because I know kids will tease me for not having an arm. But if I can talk the same as every other kid, that'll be OK. And I'd get up and the arm was still there. And I'd begin to talk and the stutter was still there. And I'd turn up to the heavens and say 'you didn't do it.' I guess he had another purpose."

That little boy grew up to become a speech therapist at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and one of three inventors of a device that would change his life, and the lives of stutterers like him.

They call it the "SpeechEasy Device." Developed at the university, the gadget fits in the canal of one ear and works like a small PA system, complete with microphone, amplifier, and speaker. It delivers delayed and altered voice feedback to the stutterer, tricking the brain into thinking that another person is speaking, too.

"Experts aren't exactly sure why this works, but they do know from previous research speaking in unison with one or more people inhibits stuttering," explains ABCNEWS Medical Editor Dr. Timothy Johnson, on Good Morning America.

Four Factors

Researchers have yet to discover the cause of stuttering, although data points to four compounding factors: genetics, neurophysiology (how the brain works), child development, and family dynamics.

According to Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation of America, more than 50 percent of people who stutter have a family member with the condition.

"Current research is focusing on actual brain abnormalities in people who stutter," she says. "Researchers are also looking at the types of pressures put on children when they begin to talk, and how that child develops."

Yet Fraser is hesitant to endorse the Speech Easy, advising people to exercise caution and not get their hopes up too high.

"We've seen so many devices come and go," she says. "We take a very cautious approach because we don't want people to be disappointed. Until we see some serious long-term research, it would be difficult for us to make a big pronouncement. It's not particularly new."

Fraser is quick to point out while devices may help some people with their stuttering, there is no cure for the condition. "There's a lot of work that goes into any long term success. What we find is that some things work for three or six months, but they don't get any long term success without a lot of work.

She says speech therapy remains the main treatment option, and warns that electronic aids can sometimes cause more harm than good.

'Dream Come True'

But Kalinowski is optimistic, citing a 90 percent response rate so far in 123 patients.

Cook, for instance, began to speak fluently once the device was fitted.

"Oh it's awesome," he says. "I'm able to get it out now. I'm going to use it a lot. And there's always ideas I have in my head I just am not able to get out."

His mother describes the joy she felt when she heard her son speak: "It's just our dream come true for him. Because we've tried everything we knew and would never really give up hope. We've always prayed there would be that something and we just can't believe we've found it."

Kalinowsky says helping others with the same disability is gratifying.

"I've suffered the same things that he's suffered. I know the same pain. So I don't want him to have the same pain for the same time that I had it for because I'm an old man. I don't want him to go through that," he says.