News / Calgary

Alberta study using saliva to link genetics to stuttering

When her son Josh was three years old, Sandra Ukrainetz started to notice him dragging out his words and stuttering over his syllables.

Because her older brother struggled with a stutter growing up, she recognized the signs and enrolled Josh in speech therapy. Now 13-years-old, Josh can go months without stuttering, but Sandra said it still shows up “out of the blue.”

Science has yet to find a root cause for stuttering, let alone a cure for this “relapse-prone disorder,” according to Deryk Beal, with the University of Alberta’s Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR).

But ISTAR has been looking to find answers in an unexpected place: saliva.

ISTAR researchers have collected 150 saliva samples from people who stutter and their families, looking for a genetic link to the disorder.

Beal said research indicates a family history with stuttering, and two identical twins will stutter nearly 80 per cent of the time, while there’s only a 50 per cent chance of fraternal twins both stuttering.

“But just because something runs in a family doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s genetic,” Beal said. “There are lots of things that run in families, including political beliefs and religious beliefs. But when you can prove [something] as being genetic is when you’re actually working with someone’s DNA.”

Josh has been attending speech therapy at ISTAR’s Calgary office for the past 10 years, and donated his saliva to the DNA bank in hopes of finding some answers.

“My stutter isn’t as bad as a lot of kids,” said Josh. “So if I can help kids who don’t get the opportunity to spit into one of the viles – for them to get a cure for their stutters – that would be good.”

Because the DNA of family members has fewer variables, Beal believes it will be easier to find and isolate a gene that may cause stuttering when analyzed and compared with MRI scans.

Additional funding has yet to be secured by ISTAR to begin the actual DNA analysis, but Beal believes finding the answer can bring them one step closer to finding a cure.

“Josh has so much to say, and he won’t let a stutter stop him,” said Sandra. “I think what bothers him is just the frustration. I can’t imagine wanting to speak, knowing exactly what I want to say, but the words won’t come. It’s heartbreaking to watch someone struggle that way with something we all just take for granted.”

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