Oller and Gipson collaborate in study of language development in children with Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC)

by Anne Adams

Dr. Tanjala Gipson from UTHSC and Dr. Kimbrough Oller, Professor in the School of Communication Sciences & Disorders are collaborating on a project to study the language development of children with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). Their research is funded by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a division of the National Institutes of Health. 
“Roughly 50% of kids with TSC or Fragile X syndrome get an [autism] diagnosis,” Dr. Oller explained. “Even though most autism is not syndromic,” Dr. Oller added, “it turns out that two syndromes [TSC and Fragile X] account for the great majority of all cases of genetically determined autism.” Children with TSC diagnosed with autism have many typical characteristics of autism, including challenges with social communication, expressive language, and anxiety (Gipson et al., 2015). Some TSC symptoms, including seizures, are managed with pharmacological interventions. Speech-language pathologists can provide appropriate interventions to address communication and language deficits for these patients. 
Dr. Gipson and Dr. Oller’s research study is designed to fill a serious gap in the research on the language development of children with TSC. Dr. Oller explained, "There has never been any significant, detailed longitudinal study on language development in TSC. Everything that is available is based on standardized tests that have no longitudinal language sampling, vocal development, or speech perception testing.

Dr. Gipson will be collaborating with the Origin of Language Laboratory (OLL) throughout the work. We’ll be doing longitudinal research on vocal development on infants and young children in the OLL and also in a laboratory that is being developed at UTHSC/Le Bonheur. In addition, there will be research on early vocabulary learning using techniques supervised by our colleagues at the University of Miami (Lynn Perry and Daniel Messinger).” 
This collaboration has exciting potential. Both researchers are Memphis-based and bring valuable experience from their respective areas of expertise. Dr. Oller, who holds the Chair of Excellence in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, is an internationally respected researcher of infant vocal development as well as ASD. “Dr. Gipson is a world expert on TSC, directing one of the world’s largest clinics, right here in Memphis (at Le Bonheur), so we have the opportunity to unite clinical and research capabilities at a very high level,” Dr. Oller said.  Dr. Gipson practices pediatric neurology at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, where she directs the TSC-Associated Neuropsychiatric Disorders Clinic and is on the faculty at the UT College of Medicine. 

The two researchers have already published a paper together in Pediatric Neurology. This paper, titled “Early Vocal Development in Tuberous Sclerosis Complex” (2021), investigated volubility (amount of speech-like vocalization) and onset of canonical babbling in infants with TSC. The study found that the canonical babbling stage was delayed in most children with TSC, and volubility was lower than half the rate of typically developing infants. Given the importance of canonical babbling as a marker for developing language, their findings can facilitate early identification of language problems and inform the timing and type of interventions for children with TSC. 

Dr. Oller and Dr. Gipson will continue their research partnership over the next several years. “We have five years of funding to pursue research on language in infants with TSC, both with and without an autism diagnosis.”

Gipson, T., Ramsay, G., Ellison, E., Bene, E. R., Long, H. L., and Oller, D. K. (2021). Early Vocal Development in Tuberous Sclerosis Complex. Pediatric Neurology. 125, 48-52.