Unlocking the Secrets of Stuttering

Seeking treatments for a speech disorder.

Author | Lilli Khatibi

Photo Courtesy of Soo-Eun Chang

Soo-Eun Chang, Ph.D., moved with her family to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea, when she was a child. Although she picked up English quickly, she watched her parents struggle to speak the language. 

"It really intrigued me that absorbing it came so naturally to me, while my parents never fully acquired the language," recalls Chang. 

The experience ignited her curiosity about the development of language, which led to her undergraduate study of psychology at Seoul National University, and advanced degrees in the U.S. 

Her personal and scholarly background built a base for her current work: the study of stuttering, which fascinated her because the understanding of and treatments for the disorder remain limited. Chang, the Rosa Casco Solano-Lopez Research Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, is principal investigator and director of the Speech Neurophysiology Lab, a joint effort between Michigan Medicine and Michigan State University. Collaborating with investigators from two leading institutions puts Chang in a unique position to pave the way for advancements in the field, she says. 

"Stuttering is extremely interesting to me because it affects the most fundamental human ability: communicating through fluent speech production," says Chang, also an assistant professor of psychiatry. "It's a disorder that is quite common, but to this date, we know very little about its etiology and why some people recover from it while others persist." 

U-M alumnus and donor Matt Smith decided to make a gift to Chang's lab because of his own experience with stuttering. With his support, researchers are testing a form of noninvasive brain stimulation called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), and early successes have led to a grant to conduct clinical trials. This will be one of the first studies of stuttering that could have direct implications for intervention-related research. 

"My goal is to have our research illuminate what we could do to develop effective treatments in people who stutter," says Chang. "Our ultimate goal would be to develop novel treatments that can be applied very early on in childhood to prevent children from having a lifelong speech disorder that can have significant psychosocial consequences." 

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