Granville Kirkup is 50, but he feels his life has just begun.
A new drug being tested on stutterers at the University of California at Irvine has helped Kirkup answer the phone, use a drive-through and meet strangers without fear that his stutter would make the experiences unbearable.
Being more fluent “is sort of like being blind and then being able to see,” said Kirkup, who runs a $20 million communications business in Irvine, Calif.
After decades without any research breakthroughs on stuttering, work being done at the University of California, Irvine, Medical Center by Dr. Gerald Maguire is the first hope for a drug that might help reduce symptoms.
Early results of the UCI study show that eight people who took the drug Risperdal had an average of a 48 percent improvement in their stuttering; the eight who took a sugar pill had an average of a 24 percent improvement.
The improvement in those on the drug is “statistically significant,” meaning it’s probably not because of chance or the power of positive thinking, said Maguire, who presented his results at a conference in New York recently.
The 1 percent of the population that stutters currently rely on speech therapy, biofeedback, counseling and advice to “just slow down,” but many say nothing really works.
A drug that cuts stuttering an average of 50 percent would be “groundbreaking,” said David Franklin, the research assistant on Maguire’s study. “It opens up a whole new realm,” said Franklin, who stuttered as a child.
Maguire, a stutterer himself, cautions that the study must be duplicated by other researchers and with larger numbers of patients. But he’s betting that in five years, the drug will be a standard therapy for stutterers.
“The majority of people in the speech and language field are excited about this work,” said Maguire, who has been on the drug for two years and still stutters, but much less than he used to; some days, the stammer that defined his life until recently all but disappears.
“It’s very promising,” he said.
Maguire’s study followed patients for six weeks. The next step is to do a longer study to see if the speech improvements last, he said.
Maguire’s earlier studies used high-tech brain scans to show that stutterers had more of the chemical dopamine in the areas of the brain called the striatum, which has been shown to be involved in motor activity.
Scans show that people who took Risperdal had improved metabolism in those areas, said Franklin.
“I think it’s extremely interesting that he found changes from the norm in people who stutter and that a medication could equilibrate it,” said Dr. Anne Foundas, an assistant professor of neurology at Tulane University in New Orleans and recipient of a National Institutes of Health grant to study stuttering.
Studies of stuttering have taken off in the past few years, as new brain-scan technology made it easier for researchers to see what’s going on inside stutterers’ brains, Foundas said.
The recent burst of research activity “is terribly exciting,” said Jane Frazer, president of the Stuttering Foundation of America. “Any research along these lines is long overdue.”
If Maguire’s work leads to a drug to treat stuttering, “people would be thrilled. I think it would be the best thing that ever happened to them,” she said.
“Inside all of us is a fluent person sort of wanting to get out,” said Kirkup. “This is a major milestone for the treatment of stuttering. I think this treatment has a real possibility to change people’s lives for the better.”