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YOUR HEALTH: Is stuttering in your genes?

A breakthrough discovery is giving hope to those who stutter.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — About 3 million people in the U.S. have a chronic stutter, including President Joe Biden and actors James Earl Jones and Bruce Willis.

There is currently no cure, but a recent discovery puts researchers a step closer to one.

"The challenges for people who stutter are profound," Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University Jennifer "Piper" Below said.

Some believe those who stutter have lower intelligence or the stutter is a result of childhood trauma.

"This has all been proven to be false," she said. "The one thing we know about stuttering is that it is absolutely genetic."

Researchers have been able to pinpoint some genes that are associated with stuttering. These include genes linked to a dopamine pathway.

"Suggesting that there might be something about how the brain is processing and signaling that could be disrupted in stuttering," Below said.

As well as genes associated with how hormones are regulated and processed in the body. Professor Below and colleagues imputed these sets of traits in a databank with 100,000 genetic samples.

"We were able to identify almost ten thousand people who our algorithm predicted might stutter," she said.

Including co-author of the study, Robin Jones, a hearing and speech sciences assistant professor at Vanderbilt.

"The stuttering that I had; it began at four years of age. For people who stutter, they know exactly what they want to say, but they are not able to say it."

And now this may be the first step in giving them that voice.

"Communication is a quintessential aspect of the human experience," Jones added. "Hopefully by doing this work, we will be able to develop treatments."

The researchers have a partnership with the genomics company, 23 and Me, where they look at the DNA samples of more than 100,000 people who self-report they stutter and a million who say they don't.

It's an effort to identify any additional genes associated with stuttering. Professor Below said children who stutter are roughly half boys and half girls. However, girls are more likely to recover from their stutter as they hit their pre-adolescent years.

New technology being developed

SpeechEasy is a device that is molded to fit the wearer's ear. This device looks a lot like a hearing aid but instead of making noises louder, it puts the user's voice on a time delay. 

The time delay allows for something called the "Choral Effect." This effect is when the stutter is lessened or eliminated when you speak or sing in unison with others. 

The University of California is in phase 2 of a clinical trial, developing a drug that treats stutters and Tourette's syndrome. This study examines the safety of using a drug called ecopipam

This drug blocks the actions of the neurotransmitter dopamine D1 receptor, which may be responsible for the repetitive and compulsive behaviors that are affiliated with stutters and Tourette's syndrome.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.