Keeping the Beat: Study Shines Light on Stuttering

Michigan State University psychology professor, Devin McAuley
Michigan State University psychology professor, Devin McAuley, – MSU/G.L. Kohuth

Researchers at Michigan State University have discovered that stuttering may be much more than just a speech impediment. Until now, stuttering was seen as a motor difficulty. This new research shows that children who stutter also struggle to keep a beat.

The research, “Evidence for a rhythm perception deficit in children who stutter,” is published in the May edition of the scientific journal, Brain and Language. Study co-author, professor of psychology Devin McAuley explained that “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.”

McAuley and his team brought in a group of children who stuttered and a group of children who did not. Each group of students was asked to identify rhythmic drumbeats while playing a computer game. The study controlled for intelligence and existing language abilities. It found that “children who stutter showed worse rhythm discrimination than typically-developing children. These findings provide the first evidence of impaired rhythm perception in children who stutter, supporting the conclusion that developmental stuttering may be associated with a deficit in rhythm processing.”

We understand very little about the underlying mechanisms behind stuttering. This new research opens new avenues for exploration and understanding. Scientists now have a strong idea to chase. Next, the research team will be combining their data with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to help identify what region of the brain may be responsible for the rhythm perception deficit.

McAuley co-authored the research with stuttering expert Soo-Eun Chang, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, who has been working on MSU campus since 2009. MSU researchers Elizabeth Wieland and Laura Dilley make up the rest of the team.

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