Brain : a journal of neurology

White matter neuroanatomical differences in young children who stutter.

PMID 25619509


The ability to express thoughts through fluent speech production is a most human faculty, one that is often taken for granted. Stuttering, which disrupts the smooth flow of speech, affects 5% of preschool-age children and 1% of the general population, and can lead to significant communication difficulties and negative psychosocial consequences throughout one's lifetime. Despite the fact that symptom onset typically occurs during early childhood, few studies have yet examined the possible neural bases of developmental stuttering during childhood. Here we present a diffusion tensor imaging study that examined white matter measures reflecting neuroanatomical connectivity (fractional anisotropy) in 77 children [40 controls (20 females), 37 who stutter (16 females)] between 3 and 10 years of age. We asked whether previously reported anomalous white matter measures in adults and older children who stutter that were found primarily in major left hemisphere tracts (e.g. superior longitudinal fasciculus) are also present in younger children who stutter. All children exhibited normal speech, language, and cognitive development as assessed through a battery of assessments. The two groups were matched in chronological age and socioeconomic status. Voxel-wise whole brain comparisons using tract-based spatial statistics and region of interest analyses of fractional anisotropy were conducted to examine white matter changes associated with stuttering status, age, sex, and stuttering severity. Children who stutter exhibited significantly reduced fractional anisotropy relative to controls in white matter tracts that interconnect auditory and motor structures, corpus callosum, and in tracts interconnecting cortical and subcortical areas. In contrast to control subjects, fractional anisotropy changes with age were either stagnant or showed dissociated development among major perisylvian brain areas in children who stutter. These results provide first glimpses into the neuroanatomical bases of early childhood stuttering, and possible white matter developmental changes that may lead to recovery versus persistent stuttering. The white matter changes point to possible structural connectivity deficits in children who stutter, in interrelated neural circuits that enable skilled movement control through efficient sensorimotor integration and timing of movements.