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Stutterers who underwent one week of therapy improved in speech, showed brain changes

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(CBS News) Researchers have discovered that after one week of speech therapy, patients who stuttered were able to significantly reduce their speech problems. What's more, the therapy lead to observable brain changes that could provide more clues about the speech disorder's causes.

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For the study, 28 people with stuttering problems and 13 people with no stuttering problems were observed. Fifteen of the stutterers were enrolled in a week of therapy, with three sessions a day, while the remaining 13 stutterers along with the stutter-free subjects received no therapy. Each therapy session consisted of repeating two-syllable words that were said to them and then reading words that were presented to them visually.

The average scores on stuttering tests for those who went to therapy improved and the percentage of stuttered syllables they uttered decreased. No changes were recorded for those who did not receive therapy.

Furthermore, brain scans taken at the beginning and the end of the study showed that there were changes in the strength of signal from the area of the brain known as the pars opercularis, which is known to be involved with speech and language. Compared to controls, stutterers showed stronger interactions in speech areas of the brain. But those who underwent therapy reduced the amount of connectivity to the same levels as people who did not stutter even, even after the therapy was over.

The results were published online on August 7 in Neurology.

Researchers hope that this study can help people understand more about how different regions of the brain affect stuttering.

"These results show that the brain can reorganize itself with therapy, and that changes in the cerebellum are a result of the brain compensating for stuttering," study author Dr. Chunming Lu, of Beijing Normal University in China, said in the press release. "They also provide evidence that the structure of the pars opercularis area of the brain is altered in people with stuttering."

According to The Stuttering Foundation, stuttering affects four times as many men and women. About 20 percent of children go through a stage where they stutter, with five percent of kids going through a phase that lasts six months or more. While 75 percent of them will recover by late childhood, there are still approximately 1 percent of the population - approximately three million Americans - that stutter as adults.

Commenting on the study, the foundation pointed out that therapy has been shown to work, but more needs to be done to make sure any improvements in speech are permanent.

"It is our experience that a competent therapist can help a person who stutters become fluent in one week," Jane Fraser, The Stuttering Foundation spokesperson, said in a press release. "That is not the challenge; the goal in stuttering therapy is staying fluent - taking what you learn in the therapy setting and transferring it into the real world and maintaining that level of fluency over time."