$2.5 million Melbourne research program giving children the gift of speech

Herald Sun

MELBOURNE researchers are giving children the gift of speech after discovering that genetics can cause childhood language problems.

A new $2.5 million research program is aiming to uncover the genetics behind stuttering, speech apraxia and language difficulties.

Researchers want to target treatments that tackle the underlying causes of disorders, and not just symptoms like current speech therapy.

They hope to develop a genetic test within five years that could make diagnosis of these disorders quicker.

More than half a million Australian children have a speech and language disorder — the equivalent of more than one child in every kindergarten class — which triples their chance of a poor academic outcome, despite them typically having average IQs.

The Murdoch Children's Research Institute's Centre for Research Excellence in Speech and Language Neurobiology, wants to find more genes responsible for speech.

They will also trial if new medications can compensate for these missing or defective genes.

Centre director and University of Melbourne speech pathologist Professor Angela Morgan, was part of London's University College research team that found the first gene, FOXP2, which causes a speech and language disorder.

This gene mutation causes problems with the complex facial movements needed for clear speech.

Prof Morgan said: "Speech and language problems are exceptionally common, but we can't always determine who will have long lasting problems and who will grow out of them."

As part of the National Health and Medical Research Council funded centre, a world-first clinic for children with suspected genetic speech problems was set up at the Royal Children's Hospital late last year. It already has a waiting list.

The clinic will use cutting edge brain scans and clinical assessments to pinpoint regions of the affected brain, and the learning styles that could bypass these pathways.

"The hope is that in five years we can develop a blood or saliva test for a large number of genes to bring those diagnoses faster and earlier in children to optimise their future," she said.

Austin Neumann was nine when he was found to have the FOXP2 mutation, which explained his largely incomprehensible speech.

"Until then we had tried everything, but with little progress," his mother Gill Neumann said.

"His brain understands everything, he knows what he wants to say, but by the time it gets from his brain to his mouth it doesn't make the whole distance," Ms Neumann said.

Through MCRI, the 12-year-old undertook intensive therapy designed specifically for his gene mutation, which saw him make improvements to his speech tone and word stress.

"We wish he can get to the point — whether through sign language or speech — that he is able to communicate, feel confident and accepted," Ms Neumann said.