A tiny, hearing aid-like device is revolutionizing speech therapy for some older children and adults who stutter, according to a University of Colorado at Boulder professor.
The device, called SpeechEasy, has helped a number of people who have not had satisfying results with traditional stuttering therapy, said Professor Peter Ramig, associate chair of the CU-Boulder department of speech, language and hearing sciences and a specialist in the research and treatment of fluency disorders and stuttering.
"Our research shows that 25 percent to 30 percent of the stutterers who have not had success with traditional stuttering therapy are helped significantly by this device, some of those more than they have experienced previously," explained Ramig. "An additional one-third are also helped, but significantly less, while the remaining are not helped at all."
SpeechEasy, manufactured by Janus Development Group of South Carolina, is worn in the ear. The prosthetic device changes how people who stutter hear themselves by both echoing their words via a slight delay and by altering the pitch of the voice. Other small devices can either echo or delay words, but none do both.
Scientists are not certain why the device works, but they do know that two technologies, delayed auditory feedback and frequency altered feedback, or pitch change, have been known for decades to help people who stutter. It is only recently that these technologies could be incorporated into a tiny device that could be worn in one ear and on a daily basis, Ramig said.
"The device is not a cure for stuttering," Ramig said, "but it dramatically decreases the severity of it for some people struggling with this embarrassing, debilitating problem."
To better understand how it works, Ramig and his colleagues are conducting an independent study to determine more about how the device helps some people who stutter and not others.
"Within the past few years, many exciting brain-scanning studies have been conducted with people who stutter that show significant differences in how their brains function, as compared to non-stutterers," explained Ramig. "The studies show structural differences in the auditory processing areas of the brain called the planum temporale."
According to Ramig, researchers do not understand what causes these differences but they speculate that the fact the device alters how the stutterers hear themselves compensates for this otherwise abnormally functioning part of the brain.
Ramig and his colleagues at CU-Boulder also are in the planning stages of another research project supported by the Stuttering Foundation of America. The new study will involve working with users of the device and the findings of a team of neurologists led by Dr. Anne Foundas of Tulane University, whose latest studies show a positive correlation between one of the technologies built into SpeechEasy and the structural differences found in the auditory processing area of the brain, he said.
The device also has some drawbacks, according to Ramig. It is expensive, costing $4,500 to $5,000. Also, the only way stutterers can decide if the device will help them is to go through a two- to three-hour computerized evaluation in order to set the delay and pitch changes that work best for that individual.
Ramig and colleagues, all stuttering specialists, have fit about 35 people with the SpeechEasy device in the past 18 months. He said they also have evaluated another 20 clients who they recommended not purchase the device because those clients experienced minimal or no fluency enhancing effect.
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