Do children with Tourette syndrome have an advantage at language?

September 29, 2016

Children with Tourette syndrome may process aspects of language faster than other children, a new study shows.

Researchers from Newcastle University UK, and Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown in the USA, found that with the were faster at assembling sounds into words – the part of language called phonology –than typically developing children. They believe this is linked to abnormalities in the brain that underpin the disorder.

Tourette syndrome is a characterised by motor and - semi-voluntary movements and vocalisations. According to the charity Tourettes Action UK, it is estimated the condition affects about one child in every hundred, and that more than 300,000 children and adults in the UK live with it.

Lead author Cristina Dye, Lecturer in child language development at Newcastle University, says "Research examining children with disorders such as Tourette syndrome usually explore difficulties or weaknesses. We wanted to examine potential areas of strength, as a way to broaden understanding of this disorder. However, further research is needed to determine whether this apparent strength could translate into actual advantages in daily life." 

Senior author Michael Ullman, Professor of Neuroscience at Georgetown University, added: "The finding that children with Tourette syndrome are faster at assembling  sounds in phonology is consistent with our previous finding that they are fast at another aspect of language: putting together meaningful parts of words, such as "walk" and "-ed", which is called morphology.

"Together, the two studies suggest that children with Tourette syndrome may be fast at processing grammar more generally, that is, at rule-governed combination in language. This is a striking possibility, since grammar is so important in giving language its amazing flexibility and power."

The researchers say findings may have clinical implications. "We know that children with most neurodevelopmental disorders have difficulty assembling sounds. So such tasks could potentially be used as an early predictor or diagnostic of Tourette syndrome in at-risk children", says Dr Dye.

Thirteen children diagnosed with Tourette syndrome and 14 typically developing children, aged between 8 and 16 years, took part in the study. The youngsters were asked to repeat a set of made-up words, such as 'naichovabe'. In such "non-word repetition tasks" people seem to non-consciously take apart and then recombine the sounds while repeating them. Although the two groups of children were similarly accurate at repeating the made-up words, the children with Tourette syndrome were much faster than the control group.

The new result is also consistent with evidence suggesting faster cognitive processing in other areas such as motor function. "We believe the underlying brain abnormality of Tourette syndrome that leads to rapid tics may also lead to the speeded performance of other processes," said Dye.

Explore further: For children with Tourette syndrome, environmental responses to tics play big role

More information: Cristina D. Dye et al. A verbal strength in children with Tourette syndrome? Evidence from a non-word repetition task, Brain and Language (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.bandl.2016.07.005

Related Stories

For children with Tourette syndrome, environmental responses to tics play big role

June 20, 2016
In a study published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development, University of Georgia researchers found that environmental responses to tics in a child with Tourette syndrome play a significant role in helping or hindering ...

Aripiprazole reduces severity of tics in children with Tourette's disorder

July 20, 2016
A meta-analysis of clinical trials evaluating the effectiveness of aripiprazole for the treatment of Tourette's disorder (TD) in children and adolescents showed a significantly greater overall improvement in total tics and ...

New brain stimulation target identified for Tourette syndrome

March 4, 2016
Specifically targeted deep-brain stimulation improves symptoms in patients with severe Tourette, a study reports in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry.

Recommended for you

Schizophrenia drug development may be 'de-risked' with new research tool

November 22, 2017
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) have identified biomarkers that can aid in the development of better treatments for schizophrenia.

Study finds infection and schizophrenia symptom link

November 22, 2017
If a mother's immune system is activated by infection during pregnancy, it could result in critical cognitive deficits linked to schizophrenia in her offspring, a University of Otago study has revealed.

Self-harm, suicide attempts climb among US girls, study says

November 21, 2017
Attempted suicides, drug overdoses, cutting and other types of self-injury have increased substantially in U.S. girls, a 15-year study of emergency room visits found.

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

Non-fearful social withdrawal linked positively to creativity

November 20, 2017
Everyone needs an occasional break from the social ramble, though spending too much time alone can be unhealthy and there is growing evidence that the psychosocial effects of too much solitude can last a lifetime.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.