Children with Tourette syndrome may have an edge at language

By Ryan Maass  |  Sept. 29, 2016 at 2:36 PM
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NEWCASTLE, England, Sept. 29 (UPI) -- Children with Tourette syndrome may have advantages when learning a language compared to their neurotypical peers, a small Newcastle University-led study suggests.

Tourette syndrome, often shorthanded as TS, is a neurological disorder characterized by sudden, repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalizations. The National Institutes of Health estimates roughly 200,000 Americans live with the most severe form of the disorder.

While TS is considered a major drawback for children in educational settings, scientists from a group of institutions have linked Tourette syndrome to a greater ability to process language.

Researchers from Newcastle University, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown University link the abnormalities associated with TS with a faster ability to assemble sounds into words in a study published in the latest edition of the Brain and Language Journal.

"Research examining children with disorders such as Tourette syndrome usually explore difficulties or weaknesses," lead author Cristina Dye said in a news release. "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."

The study involved 27 children between ages 8 and 16, 13 diagnosed with Tourette syndrome and 14 typically developing children. The subjects were asked to repeat a set of made-up words, such as 'naichovabe'. Both groups of children were able to accurately repeat the non-words, but children with Tourette syndrome repeated the words much faster than those without the disorder.

"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," senior author Michael Ullman, Professor of Neuroscience at Georgetown University, added.

"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."

Dye says her team's findings can be used to improve diagnostics in children.

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