WEDNESDAY, Aug. 8, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- For stutterers who struggle to speak fluidly, one week of intensive speech therapy can reorganize the brain's circuitry and change the thickness of a region important to speech and language, a small new study suggests.
"We have tested short-term therapy [from 7 to 10 days] for almost 10 years, and [this] test showed good effect immediately after the therapy for many people who stutter," said study author Chunming Lu, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at Beijing Normal University in China. "So we believe that one week of treatment is enough to induce behavioral changes."
The researchers found that over the seven-day span stutterers who repeated two-syllable words that were spoken to them, and then read words presented to them visually, improved their average scores on stuttering tests and percent of stuttered syllables. The study included 28 people who stuttered and 13 who did not; 15 of those who stuttered underwent three sessions of therapy per day, while the rest served as controls receiving no therapy. The participants were in their 20s and 30s.
The study is published online Aug. 8 in the journal Neurology.
About 5 percent of young children develop stuttering -- a neurological and genetic disorder characterized by repeated syllables or vocal spasms -- according to the Stuttering Foundation. The condition persists for about 1 percent of adults.
Many stuttering therapies exist, some of which are particular to certain countries or regions of the world, and treatments in the United States are often matched to patients' specific needs. The Oscar-winning movie "The King's Speech" depicted some novel techniques that helped England's King George VI control his stammer for a 1939 broadcast.
"Working on a person's speech . . . is like working on the piece of the iceberg that sticks up out of the water," said Heather Grossman, clinical director of the American Institute for Stuttering in New York City.
"This is preliminary research and it should continue to see how therapy does reorganize the brain," she added. "This is an important step in building the [body] of information that shows therapy really does bring change."
Functional MRI brain scans were used to measure the thickness of participants' cerebral cortex at the beginning and end of the study and also to measure interactions between brain areas while at rest. Compared to controls, those who stuttered had reduced thickness and strength of interactions in the pars opercularis, an area important in speech and language production. They also had stronger interactions in the cerebellum compared to the controls.
For those receiving speech therapy, the cerebellum's circuitry and connectivity were reduced to the same level as that of the control group who didn't stutter, suggesting that cerebellum changes are a result of the brain compensating for stuttering, Lu said.
"Our findings also showed that the human brain is highly plastic," she said. Given the appropriate therapy, she said, "the brain will be able to reorganize itself and help to reduce stuttering."
More research is needed, Lu and Grossman agreed, including long-term follow-up to clarify the effect of this and other speech therapies on stutterers.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine offers more information about stuttering.