Have you ever witnessed something so astonishing that you were rendered speechless? Or were you at a complete loss for words? For someone with aphasia, this reality can sometimes be all too true.
So what is aphasia?
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, aphasia is a communication disorder that results from damage to the parts of the brain that control language (1).
So what does this mean for someone who is diagnosed with this condition? A variety of symptoms are presented by those with aphasia, including, but not limited to:
- An inability to speak the words they want to.
- Difficulty producing coherent language.
- Difficulty understanding others’ language, including taking the literal meaning of figurative speech.
Some outsiders may say these people “got the wrong end of the stick.” Someone with aphasia would interpret this as literally and physically getting the wrong end of a branch. Not ideal. So what causes this phenomenon?
Put quite simply; aphasia sufferers have experienced brain damage in the region of the brain that controls language. More often than not, this is due to a stroke, but it can also be due to brain tumors or other neurological disorders. A common theme with these causes is that they occur in the brain’s left hemisphere: the hemisphere most associated with language. The two main areas involved in human language, and therefore aphasia, are known as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas (2). Depending on which of the regions the damage has occurred in, different types of aphasias can present themselves.
Damage in Broca’s area? The person can no longer fluently express themselves and have great difficulty speaking.
Damage in Wernicke’s area? The person cannot understand what is being told to them and may speak in long rambling, incoherent sentences.
So let’s look at two different groups of people: one with Broca’s aphasia and one with Wernicke’s. Let’s pretend we are asking the person, “how is the weather today?” Broca will tell you something like “cold cloud,” whereas Wernicke will tell you, “Noodle came over, and spoon hit air while TV soared.” One can quickly see how this condition can produce some pretty interesting situations.
How big of a problem is aphasia?
According to the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, roughly 1 million people in the United States live alone with aphasia (3). So over 1 million people in the USA alone cannot understand when someone is telling them a joke or how to order their favorite meal at a restaurant.
Although this disorder sounds daunting, a wide variety of treatments are available. As there are so many different kinds of aphasia, there is no single gold standard of treatment. Still, through various speech aids and language coaching techniques, people with aphasia can recover from the condition completely. These options are available through your favorite local speech-language pathologist.
Another fascinating way that the human brain itself treats aphasia is through neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s innate ability to rearrange its networks to compensate for an injury. So in some exceptional cases, a person’s brain will heal its aphasia all on its own without any outside treatment. It does this by adapting and recruiting other brain areas to do the job that Broca or Wernicke used to do.
Where do we go from here?
Besides conventional speech therapy, there is new and exciting research examining the benefits of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS stimulates the brain with tiny electrical currents to promote neuroplasticity and has shown promise in rehabilitating those with aphasia (4).
So the next time you tell someone with aphasia that it’s raining cats and dogs outside, don’t be surprised if you get a stunning look.
- Asha.org. (2016). Aphasia. [online] Available at: http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/Aphasia/ [Accessed 30 Sep. 2016].
- Meier, R. and Pinker, S. (1995). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Language, 71(3), p.610.
- nih.gov. (2016). Aphasia Information Page: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). [online] Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/aphasia/aphasia.htm [Accessed 30 Sep. 2016].
- Rodrigues, I. (2015). Rationale and clinical applicably of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to aphasia rehabilitation. Revista Neurociências, 23(02), pp.305-312.