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Aphasia

What is aphasia?

Aphasia is a language disorder caused by damage in a specific area of the brain that controls language expression and comprehension, and leaves a person unable to communicate effectively with others.

Approximately 1 million people in the United States have aphasia, with about 80,000 cases diagnosed each year from stroke alone. Both genders are affected equally, and most people with aphasia are in middle to old age.

What are the different types of aphasia?

There are many types of aphasia, which are usually diagnosed by which area of the language-dominant side of the brain is affected and the extent of the damage.

People with Broca's aphasia, for example, have damage to the front portion of the language-dominant side of the brain. They may eliminate the articles "and" and "the" from their language, and speak in short, but meaningful, sentences. They usually can understand some speech of others.

Those with Wernicke's aphasia have damage to the side portion of the language-dominant part of the brain. They may speak in long confusing sentences, add unnecessary words, or create new words. They usually have difficulty understanding the speech of others.

Global aphasia is the result of damage to a large portion of the language-dominant side of the brain. People with global aphasia have difficulties with speaking or comprehending language.

What causes aphasia?

Aphasia is caused by damage to the language-dominant side of the brain, usually the left side, and may be brought on by:

  • Stroke

  • Head injury

  • Brain tumor

  • Infection

  • Dementia

It is currently unknown if aphasia causes the complete loss of language structure, or if it causes difficulties in how language is accessed and used.

How is aphasia diagnosed?

Confirmation of aphasia, extent of the disorder, and prediction for successful treatment may be assessed and confirmed by a set of comprehensive language tests conducted by a speech-language pathologist. These tests include studying speech, naming, repetition, comprehension, reading, and writing. Making a diagnosis may also include the use of imaging procedures, such as:

  • Computed tomography (CT). A diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radio frequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET). A computer-based imaging technique that uses radioactive substances to examine body processes. For example, a PET scan of the heart provides information about the flow of blood through the coronary arteries to the heart.

Treatment for aphasia

Specific treatment for aphasia will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disorder

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disorder

  • Your opinion or preference

Other determining factors include the patient's:

  • Cause, area, and extent of brain damage 

  • Age and health  

  • Motivation

  • Handedness

  • Education level

The goal of treatment is to improve the patient's ability to communicate through methods that may include:

  • Speech-language therapy

  • Nonverbal communication therapies, such as computers or pictures

  • Group therapy for patients and their families

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