By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
As a child, Vanessa T. Mueller, Ph.D., was captivated by how people communicated.
Muller has stuttered for as long as she can remember. Her inability to communicate without blocks or tense pauses in her speech made her self-conscious growing up. Because of her stutter, Mueller dreaded answering questions in class.
“I’ve always thought about how people communicate since it was so difficult for me at a young age,” said Mueller, an assistant professor in The University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Health Sciences. “I can remember watching people’s mouths as they talked because I was fascinated with how fluently and how quickly their mouths moved.”
When Mueller was 10 years old, she met Ms. Patti, a speech pathologist who helped Mueller soften and lengthen the sounds of her words so they would come out more fluently. Patti also influenced Mueller’s career choice to become a speech language pathologist.
“These days I’ve actually been grateful for my stuttering problems, because I think it does make me a more empathetic speech pathologist and teacher,” said Mueller, who joined the UTEP Speech-Language Pathology program in 2008. “I do know what it’s like to not be able to communicate the way you want to.”
Although Mueller’s stuttering has vastly improved over time, she is not alone in her struggle with the speech disorder.
According to the National Stuttering Association, more than 3 million Americas stutter. The association’s website states that people who stutter often experience physical tension in their speech muscles, as well as embarrassment, anxiety and fear about speaking. Together, these symptoms can make it very difficult for people who stutter to say what they want to say and to communicate effectively with others.
May 12-18 is National Stuttering Awareness Week. The purpose of the week is to support people who stutter and to help find a cure through research.
Roger Ingham, Ph.D., a professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and a lecturer at UTEP in the College of Health Sciences, is one of the world’s foremost researchers on developmental stuttering.
His research has focused on the development of stuttering treatments, measures of stuttering, the neurology of stuttering and, most recently, its genetic basis.
Ingham recently gave a talk titled “Methods of Imaging Research and Uses in Investigation of Developmental Stuttering” during a lecture at the college May 9.
Dozens of students, faculty and alumni from the UTEP Speech-Language Pathology program listened to Ingham talk about recent dramatic events that have taken place in the research he is conducting with his colleagues from UCSB, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the University of Georgia and Logera Solutions in Stuttgart, Germany.
Using a new imaging technique called diffusion spectrum imaging (DSI), researchers discovered that the critical white matter tract that connects several brain regions important for speech production is incomplete in the right and left hemispheres of the brain in people who stutter.
“We discovered a gap in the connection of white matter, which is the association fibers that link up various parts of the brain,” Ingham explained. “Then to make it even more interesting, we found an overdevelopment in one critical area also associated with speech production. We think it’s a compensatory sort of development and it occurs around a critical area.”
The study compared the brain scans of eight adult males who stutter with scans of eight adult males who are fluent speakers. The Stuttering Foundation, a nonprofit working toward the prevention and improved treatment of stuttering, estimates that stuttering affects four times as many males as females.
Ingham said the images for all eight males who stuttered showed the same gap.
“It’s inconceivable that you could have normal speech if you’ve got a break in the track that runs from the area called Wernicke’s Area in the brain through the Broca’s Area – they’re the crucial areas associated with speech production,” Ingham said.
Early in his career, Ingham, a native of Australia, implemented revolutionary behavioral principles for the treatment of stuttering, but the development of brain imaging in the 1990s changed that.
“(Brain imaging) has changed the whole ballgame,” Ingham said. “First of all, we now know that it’s a neurologic condition that is precipitated probably genetically. It runs in a family.”
Ingham has published four books and more than 180 papers, principally on developmental stuttering. He also has received several federally funded research grants for investigating stuttering.
Ingham is also a professor of research at the University of Texas San Antonio and an adjunct professor in the Research Imaging Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio where, in collaboration with Peter Fox, Ph.D., and Janis Costello Ingham, Ph.D., he has developed a program of research on stuttering and its treatment using brain imaging techniques including PET, event-related fMRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation.
“(Dr. Ingham) continues to break new ground in this area (stuttering) that we all know at times truly mystifies us and at other times frustrates us,” said Anthony P. Salvatore, Ph.D., speech-language pathology professor and chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at UTEP.
People with communicative disorders such as language, fluency, voice and motor speech disorders can get help at UTEP’s Speech, Hearing and Language Clinic in the Campbell Building. Services also are available for articulation/phonological disorders, augmentative/alternative communication, and accent modification therapy.
The clinic is staffed by graduate students in the University’s speech-language pathology program who provide diagnostic and therapy services for UTEP students, faculty, staff and their families as well as for community members under the supervision of a certified speech-language pathologist.
“The purpose of our clinic is to two-fold,” said Benigno Valles, clinic coordinator. “First, it is a teaching clinic that provides our students with hands-on experience in the application of their classroom knowledge into clinical practice. Secondly, it provides speech-language services to the El Paso/Juárez community.”
Clients are scheduled for diagnostic evaluations as the result of medical, educational and/or self-referral.
For more information, contact Benigno Valles at 915-747-7209.
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