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Professor seeks cause, cure for stuttering with help from Virginia Tech alumnus

Could stuttering be genetic? John Lemons, a 1960 Virginia Tech graduate with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, thinks so.

Lemons has enjoyed a long and wildly successful career leading several companies that manufacture semiconductors. But he had to get around a major roadblock, one he still grapples with today. Lemons has the speech disorder, stuttering.

It started during his early childhood, with Lemons unable to speak until he was 6 years old. Now, at age 81, he wants to make sure others don’t have to battle the same issues he did. With help from researchers at the Virginia Tech College of Science, Lemons wants to know why and how he came to have difficulty speaking, with the hope of a successful treatment.

Mike Bowers, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, is hunting for that bug. Bowers studies language and neurodevelopment disorders.

Now with research funding organized by Lemons, Bowers is using rat models to understand the genetic origins of stuttering. Neuroscientists think they’ve identified four mutant genes behind stuttering and stammering, but they don’t yet know the connection, the why between those genes and difficulty in speaking.

“Most of the research with stuttering has been focused on treatment with little work done on the neurobiology of what causes stuttering,” Bowers said. “We are looking for the gene mechanisms behind stuttering. We hope this research will lead to future treatments, maybe via gene therapy, to correct the problem before it ever begins.”

Lemons may have one more way to help: by giving over DNA samples from himself and his grandchildren and other relatives. Bowers said he would take these samples and “conduct next generation sequencing and target prespecified genes that are known to be involved with stuttering.”