Science Daily — Compared to advancements in modern medicine over the past 70 years, there have been few new treatment options for people who stutter. That’s one reason a $50 digital device being developed by a University of Mississippi researcher is drawing attention.
Greg Snyder shows off one of his digital speech feedback devices, which are modified MP3 players. The goal is to provide low-cost treatment options for people who stutter. (Credit: UM photo by Kevin Bain)
Contrast that price to a typical digital speech device costing approximately $5,000, and it’s easy to see why Greg Snyder, assistant professor of communicative disorders, may be on to something big. Snyder said that his own experience as a person who stutters played an important role in his chosen goals as a researcher and educator.
“There is an incredible amount of disinformation and poor theory in stuttering research and treatment,” Snyder said. “Most of the ‘common knowledge’ thought by the public and even within the field isn’t based on science, but rather people’s ‘common sense’ prejudice.”
Snyder’s research has led him to develop a system using portable MP3 players to take the place of expensive and nearly invisible digital speech feedback prosthetic devices.
Steve Zieke, a Minnesota resident who met Snyder at the National Stuttering Association annual conference in 2005, said Snyder’s device has been helpful to him.
“It has been a very useful tool for me,” Zieke said. “I don’t use it all the time. In fact, as you can see, there are times when I am quite fluent, but there are also times that I am not so fluent depending upon the circumstances. I have found Greg’s device to be very helpful at times when I am having difficulties.”
Snyder said that it has been known since the early 1950s that Delayed Auditory Feedback enhances fluent speech in those who stutter.
“Because the current paradigm believed – and still largely believes – that stuttering is a psychological problem, many professionals continue to believe that this speech feedback ‘distracts’ people from their stuttering, thus enhancing fluent speech,” he said. “Other professionals believe that the speech feedback slows down the rate of speech, thus enhancing fluent speech. Both of these premises are not easily supported with science. However, there is an emerging group of researchers who realize that speech feedback might work by altering the way the brain processes speech.”
Using this theory, researchers at East Carolina University developed the SpeechEasy, an in-the-ear feedback device. It picks up the speaker’s voice, alters the voice and then reintroduces the voice to the speaker. Snyder explained that when the person who stutters hears this, it seems to emulate the choral speech which is associated with fluency enhancement. What makes the device special is that it is about the size of a hearing aid, and it can cost up to $4,900.
“A person’s stuttering severity can really fluctuate over time, and it was a little more severe than I wanted when I started a faculty position at another university,” Snyder said, explaining the origins of his research. “So, I hypothesized that if I could simply record myself making vowel sounds, and then play those vowel sounds, it would enhance fluency.”
From his research, Snyder has been able to determine that speech initiation is a major part of stuttering. For example, if someone stutters on the word “st-t-t-utter,” they may not be stuttering on the “t” but rather failing to initiate the “u” sound.
Snyder also determined that many people who stutter may only need an external source of speech initiation to address their problem. Those realizations coupled with the then-emerging technology of hand-held digital music devices led to his current line of research.
“I was awarded a faculty research project grant funded by the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at the University of Mississippi, which allowed me to purchase 12 iPod Shuffles, and send them to people who stutter around the country,” he said. “The results were pretty promising. While it’s not a cure, it worked on 80 percent of the participants.”
In fact, 40 percent of research participants found significant fluency enhancement while using the device; the other 40 percent found it effective but probably not enough to endure the nuisance of the constant vowel sounds.
“This device certainly will not cure stuttering or the problems of stuttering, but it may improve the quality of life for some people who stutter,” Snyder said.
Initial results suggest that this methodology may produce comparable results to that of the SpeechEasy, but for about 1/100th of the cost.
“So, if it works for our clients, great,” Snyder said. “If not, then they have a cool and inexpensive MP3 player for their own personal use. No real ‘lose’ scenario in the situation.”
Carolyn Higdon, associate professor of communicative disorders, said technology is constantly changing all aspects of the fields of communication science and disorders.
“Research and technology reinforce students’ critical thinking skills, which is then reflected in their reading and writing abilities,” she said. “A research environment, in addition to an academic environment, fueled by professors excited by their own research is an excellent model for achieving the goals of the department. Professors like Dr. Snyder are a great asset to not only their research area but also to the quality and skills of the students that Ole Miss graduates.”
Note: This story has been adapted from material provided by University of Mississippi.