Children with Tourette syndrome (TS) may process aspects of language faster than other children, a new study shows. Researchers from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, and Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown in the US, conducted a study that found that children with Tourette syndrome (TS), a neurological tic disorder, were faster at assembling sounds into words – the part of language called phonology – than typically developing children.

According to the researchers, whose paper on the study appeared in the September 2016 edition of the journal Brain and Language, they believe this sound-processing advantage is linked to abnormalities in the brain that underpin the tic disorder.

Tourette syndrome is a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by motor and vocal tics—semi-voluntary movements and vocalizations. According to the charity Tourettes Action in the UK, it is estimated the condition affects about 1 child in every 100, and that more than 300,000 children and adults in the UK live with it. According to statistics published on the Tourette Association of America website, TS affects about 1 child in every 100 between the ages of 5-17, and approximately 300,000 children in the US live with it.

“Research examining children with disorders such as Tourette syndrome usually explore difficulties or weaknesses,” said lead study author Cristina Dye, PhD, a lecturer in child language development at Newcastle University. “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 study author Michael Ullman, PhD, a 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 combinations 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,” said 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 study participants 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 speedier performance of other processes,” said Dye.

Source: Newcastle University; A verbal strength in children with Tourette syndrome? Evidence from a non-word repetition task, DOI:

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