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San Antonio Researchers Aim To Retrain Brains Of Stutterers

Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Jeffrey Mock injects a saltwater and starch solution beneath sensors.

This is the fifth session for University of Texas at San Antonio sophomore Alesandro Salazar.

Each time he sits in this sound booth, wearing a skullcap of sensors, he recites nonsensical phrases from a computer monitor.

They’re intended to make him stutter.

“Cassie whu waddie,” Salazar says.

Each phrase on the computer monitor is preceded by a beep.

“Lilly rr-rurahsheeus.”

Salazar has stuttered his whole life. He’s tried traditional therapies with some success, but day-to-day speech isn’t like in a speech therapist's office, he said.

“In real life, that’s not something you can do,” he says. “You’ll get excited; you’ll get nervous; you’ll get anxious; you get all these different emotions and you can’t be this calm robot voice all the time.”

So he avoids sounds he knows he has problems with and has taught himself some tricks.

Now, Salazar is participating in a program UTSA researchers hope will lead to stutters being able to retrain their brain.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Researchers track Salazar's eye movements as well.

Farzan Irani, a speech pathologist and professor at Texas State University, listens to Salazar recite the lines through headphones outside the soundproof booth.

Irani stands in front a bank of computer monitors, all with Salazar on them. He listens for stuttering, or what they call a “disfluency.”

“Viscosysinuquait,” Salazar said.

“That was actually a disfluency right there,” Irani said.

Irani said he’s involved with this UTSA research because he has seen therapy wear off for many people.

“They’ll get fluent while in therapy and then a few months down the road, the stuttering starts to rise again,” he said.

The National Institutes of Health granted them a two-year $387,000 grant for the project. It estimates that stuttering affects 3 million Americans.

“Our hypothesis is that it is a speech preparation problem not a speech production problem,” said Jeffrey Mock, an assistant professor of research at UTSA.

But first, they need an accurate snapshot of a stutters brain waves before they stutter.

Mock walks into the sound booth and inserts a large syringe into the cap on Salazar’s head.

WATCH | Salazar and Mock in the laboratory


Some sensors aren’t reading well, so he pushes the syringe back and forth, swinging it around like a joystick. He then injects saltwater and starch gel, which increases the connection between the scalp and the sensor.

Mock says he’s interested in the research since he stutters, but also because their goal is to read the brain.

“As a neuroscientist, it’s really being able to predict behavior before it occurs,” he said. “That has a wide range into many different fields.”

Everything in the session is recorded: video, audio, brain waves, and even eye movement.

Farzani will analyze the video and mark when a stutter occurred.

Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Brain waves are recorded by an electroencephalogram. Computers using machine learning will sift through the data to help refine the "target" brain waves.

He said the brain wave data will also be analyzed with the help of computers using machine-learning algorithms that can better detect subtle changes as well as help create a better predictive model.

The team’s current model predicts stuttering with about 85 percent accuracy, said UTSA psychology professor Ed Golob.

“The next step is to use the fluent brain patterns as a target to essentially train the brain to make that pattern more often,” he said.

Golob wants to create a therapy that gives audio or visual biofeedback to let subjects know if they are getting closer to the target brainwave pattern. It’s called biofeedback.

Golob said if this effort works for stuttering, it might work on more serious conditions, including strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injury.

While it won’t replace other therapies, it creates another tool to get the most out of the brain, Golob said.

But all that assumes the research proves fruitful.

Salazar doesn’t see the research benefiting him but said that’s OK because he has learned how to cope.

“I remember when I was, like, little I had all this stuff to say and I knew exactly what I wanted to say and I would try to talk and it wouldn’t come out,” he said.

He said he hopes his participation helps a kid like him.

Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org