Eichorn NIH Grant

In June 2023, Dr. Naomi Eichorn was awarded an R21 grant from the National Institute of Health for her project “Information processing biases in adults who stutter: Behavioral and eye-tracking indices of threat-related attention allocation.” R21 grants support exploratory research and developmental research that “extend previous discoveries toward new directions or applications.” Building on her previous research on the underlying cognitive mechanisms involved in stuttering, Dr. Eichorn’s project examines the interaction of attention and emotion and their impact on the individual’s experience of stuttering.

In the following interview, Dr. Eichorn shared her perspective on the impact of the NIH grant, her motivation for this project, and its contribution to the understanding of stuttering and the future of stuttering interventions.

How did you become interested in stuttering, its underlying mechanisms, and attention bias specifically? 

Like many in our field, my interest in speech pathology and stuttering, in particular, was first sparked by experiences of close family members. My younger brother stuttered intermittently as a child and I was puzzled by the way fluctuations in his stuttering seemed to be influenced by his reactions to what was happening. The more he thought and worried about stuttering, the more he appeared to struggle. Around this time, I also heard a presentation about stuttering in one of my undergraduate courses about how stuttering is complicated over time by layers of anxiety, fear, and shame that develop in response to stuttering. I was intrigued by the complex ways aspects of speech production interacted with thoughts and emotions.

Our field has known about stuttering for as long as we’ve been a field and yet, a unifying theory of stuttering still eludes researchers. At this point, it is well accepted that stuttering arises from dynamic interactions between many factors – genetic, motor, linguistic, cognitive, and emotional – but we don’t yet have a clear understanding of the extent to which each factor contributes to individual outcomes. I am primarily interested in cognitive and emotional factors and aim to gain a clearer understanding of how aspects of cognition, particularly attention, shape the development of emotional responses to stuttering. Most of my studies so far have examined associations between attention and stuttering but haven’t accounted for emotional factors. In my current project, I’ve broadened my questions and developed original tasks that can provide information about how both of these factors interact with each other and influence psychological sequelae of stuttering.

What gap(s) in the literature on stuttering helped inspire this research? 

My research focuses on causal mechanisms that may drive hidden features of stuttering. Most people are familiar with the overt speech behaviors associated with stuttering, such as blocks, repetitions, and prolongations. Psychological reactions to the life experiences of stuttering are ‘hidden’ in that they are not apparent to listeners but can be far more debilitating and are not well understood. These reactions can include fear, shame, negative attitudes about speaking, and avoidance of sounds, words or speaking situations altogether. Such responses vary widely across individuals, do not correlate with surface symptoms (i.e., observable blocks/repetitions), and are challenging to treat. My research focuses on the role of selective attention in these responses and assesses whether attention bias to threat plays a causal role in individual emotional outcomes related to stuttering. Similar to individuals with anxiety, who demonstrate heightened attention to threat-related stimuli (especially when such stimuli directly relate to their personal concerns), adults who stutter may allocate attention to threat-related stimuli more quickly and for longer durations than controls. 

 What are the immediate and long-term goals for the project? 

The immediate goals of the funded project are to identify and characterize patterns of threat-related attention bias in adults who stutter. The study includes a variety of experimental tasks that reliably elicit attention bias in clinical populations and uses eye-tracking techniques that provide near-continuous measures of visual attention patterns. Our tasks also incorporate personalized threat stimuli for each participant that more directly reflect individual lived experiences of stuttering. In addition to our experimental data, we are gathering extensive subjective data related to our participants’ perceived psycho-emotional impact of stuttering. Ultimately, we aim to examine the extent to which attention bias tendencies contribute to emotional responses to stuttering.

Over the long-term, our findings will provide a means for identifying individuals at highest risk for adverse effects of stuttering. Our data will also guide the development of novel interventions designed to modify attention bias patterns and potentially neutralize fear-based responses to stuttering.

 How will the NIH grant facilitate your research project in the area of biased attention and stuttering? 

The grant from NIH generously provides three years of funding to cover expenses related to this project, such as personnel, equipment, travel, and time required to carry out the project successfully. I am excited to be collaborating with internationally recognized researchers in the area of attention bias, including Dr. Yair Bar-Haim from Tel Aviv University in Israel and Dr. Daniel Pine at the National Institutes of Mental Health. Dr. Luca Campanelli at University of Alabama is contributing conceptual and practical expertise related to eye-tracking methodology and faculty at the University of Memphis are collaborating on all aspects of data analysis and interpretation. I am also fortunate to have an incredible GA, Payton Roberts, and talented team of students assisting with this project in the Cognition, Language and Speech Lab. All of our progress and achievements are a team effort and I am grateful for everyone’s contributions!

For more information on the project, visit the NIH Project Details page: https://reporter.nih.gov/project-details/10731318