A Pill for Stuttering

ByLISA M. JONES, M.D., ABC News Medical Unit

Sept. 14, 2006 — -- "Easier said than done" does not often hold true for the approximately 2.5 million American adults who suffer from persistent stuttering.

Most stutterers use speech therapy to help them overcome their difficulties in speaking. But researchers at Indevus Pharmaceuticals in Lexington, Mass., are testing a different kind of therapy -- a new drug called pagoclone.

In a clinical trial of 132 patients, 55 percent of stutterers who received pagaclone showed improvement while 35 percent improved in the group who did not receive the drug. Patients were given the medication for two months and were tested twice for signs of improvement.

Unlike medications previously tested to curb stuttering, pagoclone produced only a few, mild side effects in the men and women in the pagoclone group.

Researchers said they evaluated the men and women not only for their ability to comfortably say a sentence but also on how "natural" their speech sounded. The researchers counted the number of times the patients stuttered as they read a paragraph aloud, and patients were also asked to rate their improvement.

For many years, scientists believed that stuttering was a behavior that kids learned early in life, and that it was not a genetic trait, or something caused by some other biological factors. So far, treatment has focused on speech therapy, which retrains stutterers to speak without stammering..

But "more studies are demonstrating the role genetics and the brain play in stuttering," said Dr. Barry Kosofsky, chief of pediatric neurology at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

One current theory maintains that the brains of stutterers might contain too much dopamine, a brain chemical that also plays a part in Parkinson's disease, drug addiction and mood disorders. Researchers believe that pagoclone works by lowering dopamine levels in the brain.

Pagoclone sounds promising, but whether this drug becomes a best-selling blockbuster has yet to be seen.

Experts seemed skeptical.

"Medical therapy is not likely to be a first-line treatment for stuttering," said Richard Merson, a speech and language pathologist at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Merson estimated that only 1 percent of stuttering patients will be candidates for medical treatment -- those who were not helped by speech therapy.

Speech experts expressed concern that parents might rely too much on medication, and that parents will not get their children the therapy they need when they're young, a time when therapies are most effective. Plus, relying on pills alone, especially an experimental pill like pagoclone, might cause problems later.

"As a stutterer, I see the value in medication but also the importance of good speech therapy," said Ross Barrett, who is a speech therapist at East Virginia School of Medicine in Norfolk, Va.