Children who stutter have difficulty perceiving a beat in music-like rhythms, researchers have found. The difficulty could account for their halting speech patterns.

The findings have implications for treating stuttering, which affects 70 million people worldwide, co-author Devin McAuley, professor of psychology at Michigan State University, said:

“Stuttering has primarily been interpreted as a speech motor difficulty, but this is the first study that shows it’s related to a rhythm perception deficit – in other words, the ability to perceive and keep a beat. That’s important because it identifies potential interventions which might focus on improving beat perception in children who stutter, which then might translate to improved fluency in speech."

Underlying Mechanisms Remain Unclear

Around 70 percent to 80 percent of children ages 3 to 5 who stutter will eventually stop, McAuley said. Yet, despite decades of research, the underlying mechanisms behind speech disruptions in people who stutter remain unclear.

The ability to perceive and maintain a beat is believed to be critical for normal speech because it serves as a pacing signal. This is bolstered by past research showing that speech fluency improves dramatically for adults who stutter when speaking in time with a metronome.

McAuley and colleagues tested a group of children who stuttered and a group who didn’t by having them listen to and then identify rhythmic drumbeats in the context of a computer game.

Even after taking into account the kids’ IQs and language abilities, the study found that children who stuttered did much worse at judging whether two rhythms were the same or different.

Many past studies incorporated a motor skills element, for example having participants tap to a beat, which made it impossible to tell whether the problem was rhythm perception or a motor production deficit, McAuley said.

The research team is integrating the behavioral data with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to identify which brain networks may be responsible for the rhythm perception deficit.

Elizabeth A. Wieland, J. Devin McAuley, Laura C. Dilley, Soo-Eun Chang. Evidence for a rhythm perception deficit in children who stutter. Brain and Language, 2015; 144: 26 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandl.2015.03.008

Photo: webtreats/flickr

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