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.
Stuttering -- a Genetic Condition
"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."
Even if the genetic cause for stuttering is found, a cure could take years to develop, according to Drayna.
A drug called Pagoclone, which treats dopamine levels in the brain, offers a potential alternative. However, the drug is still undergoing clinical trials and the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved it.
A Medical Mystery Across Time
"This disorder has been well described since biblical times and for 4,000 years, the cause of this disorder has eluded us," says Drayna.
Egyptian hieroglyphs painted on cave walls describe stuttering very clearly, according to Drayna. Centuries later, stutterers like Winston Churchill broadcast his speeches on the radio during World War II. Following that generation, Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Stewart were stutterers who became icons of the silver screen.
According to the Stuttering Foundation of America, present-day individuals who stutter include athletes Tiger Woods and Johnny Damon, actors James Earl Jones and Bruce Willis, and ABC's John Stossel.
The future generation, comprising an increasingly wired youth, will benefit from technology in the form of wireless communication and devices like the SpeechEasy, Kalinowski says. "If I had text messaging when I was an adolescent or young adult, I would have used the phone rather than driving my car all over town trying to locate friends at their home."
Kalinowski, whose own childhood was marred by painful stuttering experiences, believes that "those who stutter have nothing to be ashamed of today and devices like the SpeechEasy open doors to new jobs, social endeavors, educational opportunities and more."
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