Is stuttering genetic? VT alum, Tech science researchers look for cause, cure

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Could stuttering be genetic? John Lemons – a 1960 Virginia Tech graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering – thinks so.

Lemons has enjoyed a long and wildly successful career leading several companies that manufacture semiconductors. But he had to get around a major roadblock, one he still grapples with today. From his childhood through college and careers and up to now, Lemons has the speech disorder, stuttering.

It started during his early childhood, with Lemons unable to speak until he was 6 years old. Now, at age 81, he wants to make sure others don’t have to battle the same issues he did. This includes his own grandsons, who stutter in a similar manner to Lemons and his older brother, now deceased. (Stuttering appears to affect only the men in Lemons’ family, but not the women, a common feature of stuttering.)

Now, with help from researchers at the Virginia Tech College of Science, Lemons wants to know why and how he came to have difficulty speaking, with the hope of a successful treatment.

“Finding a cure to stuttering is my passion,” he said. “It’s the only thing on my bucket list I have left. My brain works great, and my muscles work great, but the wiring is screwed up. There’s a bug in my wiring that makes me stutter.”

Mike Bowers, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, is now hunting for that bug. Bowers studies language and neurodevelopment disorders. Much of his research has focused on the development of language and, separately, children with autism spectrum disorder.

Multiple causes can lead to stuttering, according to the nonprofit Stuttering Foundation. About 1 percent of the world’s population – about 70 million people, 3 million in the United States – stutter. That can be speech broken by repetitions, prolongations, or abnormal pauses at certain sounds or syllables.

Working alongside Bowers is undergraduate researcher Makenzlie Taylor, a sophomore originally from Nashville, Ark., who was working in Bowers’ lab prior to the new research into stuttering. In her work, Taylor said she has found that “a similar pattern of hemispheric differences affected in our animals has also been shown to be affected in humans.”

Bowers added that developmental stuttering is one of the most common speech disorders affecting roughly 10 percent of children. A majority of stutters overcome the speech disorder either on their own or via therapy. How so is still a mystery, according to Bowers.

Now with research funding organized by Lemons, Bowers is using rat models to understand the genetic origins of stuttering. Neuroscientists think they’ve identified four mutant genes behind stuttering and stammering, but they don’t yet know the connection, the why between those genes and difficulty in speaking.

“Most of the research with stuttering has been focused on treatment with little work done on the neurobiology of what causes stuttering,” Bowers said. “We are looking for the gene mechanisms behind stuttering. We hope this research will lead to future treatments, maybe via gene therapy, to correct the problem before it ever begins.”

The research may lead to cures not only for stuttering, but for stammering and other speech difficulties, including communication issues linked to autism. Bowers’ research is based on a long-time research project into how rats communicate with each other — a soft singing, rather than “talking.”

(Lemons has donated scores of money during the course of several years to Virginia Tech’s Student Services program to help evaluate and coach students with speaking challenges. He also keeps up with Bowers’ work via Skype chats held every three months with Bowers in Blacksburg, Lemons in California.)

And Lemons may have one more way to help: by giving over DNA samples from himself and his grandchildren and other relatives. Bowers said he would take these samples and “conduct next generation sequencing and target prespecified genes that are known to be involved with stuttering.”

“We would look at the sequencing data in order to compare the DNA sequencing between those individuals from John’s family that stutter to those family members that do not stutter,” Bowers added. “If we find a sequencing mismatch, we could then clone the DNA and put it into a construct that we could then use in our rats to see if it makes them stutter.”

Working with Lemons’ family is ideal, Bowers said, but it will eventually expand to others. “Working with one family is best to reduce variability,” added Bowers. “We could then open the sample collection to anyone who stutters in the hopes we find a common link.”

Lemons, in an interview from California, said, “If I can do anything to help I will.”