In the late 1800’s, neurologists Broca and Wernicke discovered lesions (or damage) to the left side of the brain that could possibly destruct speech patterns. Today this is known as Foreign Accent Syndrome or (FAS). FAS is a neurological disorder that causes a person’s speech to be gradually or suddenly accented. It affects both Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area in the brain. The underlying effects of FAS are often led by traumatic brain injuries, hemiplegic migraines, strokes, and/or multiple lesions to the brain (Garst & Katz, 2006).
The left hemisphere of our brain is generally associated with areas that process speech, language, logic, and facts. The right hemisphere is usually affiliated with our surroundings, such as spatial recognition, art, music, and understanding tone. Broca’s area, located in the left frontal lobe, is responsible for forming our words while Wernicke’s area, located near the left temporal lobe, puts those words into sentences (NIH, 2008). Neurologists find that these parts of the brain have something to do with speech production and thus resulting in the patient sounding foreign. This result can cause placement of tongue, pronunciation issues, and slurring of words when speaking (UTD, 2015). Now that you have an understanding of FAS and of the brain, let’s move on to how a patient can take this info and their symptoms to the doctor.
Proper diagnosis comes first for a FAS patient. A patient who may experience slurring of words, frequent headaches, stroke-like symptoms, or memory loss, must seek medical attention immediately. Although with the rarity of FAS, these symptoms can present themselves at any time to any healthy person. A treatment plan for FAS doesn’t end with the first doctor’s visit. A patient with this syndrome will visit a radiologist, neurologist, speech therapist, and a neuropsychologist for months, if not years to improve their situation (Garst & Katz, 2006). A patient will undergo multiple CT scans and MRI’s, but what is most important is the fMRI (functional MRI). The fMRI measures activity in the brain by measuring its blood flow whereas the MRI only shows contrasting tissue images of the brain (UCSD, 2015). In order for doctors, scientists, and researchers to understand this syndrome further, fMRI’s should be the basis of all brain scans for these patients. Since this syndrome is so rare, many doctors and researchers want to and should learn more about how FAS affects the brain and speech. A very popular case study of FAS occurred in 1941 during a German air-raid when a Norwegian woman was injured on the left side of the brain by scrap metal. She experienced speech loss and improved language abilities within the year after the incident. During this time, doctors diagnosed her with FAS (Garst & Katz, 2006). On the other hand, patients who suffer from Aphasia (meaning without speech) can experience speech loss due to the lesions or neural damage on or near Wernicke’s area. FAS patients tend to also mispronounce or delete certain vowels or consonants while speaking (Garst & Katz, 2006). Even though these areas are in different locations of the brain, they are both involved in key aspects of processing speech.
Ellen Spencer, from Indiana, is one of the rare documented cases that currently lives with FAS. She did not suffer from a stroke, but a severe headache. Even though her speech is heavily accented, her singing sounds much like her original voice. In her video, listed below, she sings “Amazing Grace” and her foreign accent is nowhere to be found. Why is this you ask? The right side of the brain is responsible for music and singing information, therefore she is able to use the singing area of her brain to alleviate the foreign accent. I had the opportunity to talk with Ellen via email and her side of the syndrome is very thought-provoking. She says, “The psychosocial aspects can be devastating. Since it’s so rare, getting validation or proper diagnosis is often first a failure and a challenge.” Ellen has also become an advocate for FAS worldwide and even has contributed to a book on the topic titled Foreign Accent Syndromes: The stories people have to tell that is published by Psychology Press to be used in many universities and hospitals. The book, linked below, is written by Jack Ryalls and Nick Miller.
After a few email tags with Ellen and finding out more information on FAS, I do hope that more research will be conducted on this syndrome because there is not much known about it right now and many patients are being misdiagnosed. Even though it is rare, with approximately 100 documented cases, the underlying events that lead to FAS happen all too often (Youtube, 2015). As headaches, head injuries, and strokes occur worldwide every day, conducting research on this syndrome can possibly lead to a proper diagnosis in future patients. This is essential to prevent further harm, and finding out what exactly is causing each specific case and if there is possibly a cure for those living with FAS.
Here’s a link to the Ryalls & Miller FAS book that Ellen Spencer contributed to:
Video of Ellen Spencer:
Video of Ellen Spencer on Outrageous Acts of Science (start at 23:00 minutes):
Garst, D., Katz, W. (2006). Foreign Accent Syndrome. The ASHA Leader, 11.10, 10-31. Retrieved on June 20, 2015 from http://leader.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=2278208
Miller Ph.D., Dave, Thompson Ph.D., Bert, Harrub Ph.D., Brad. The Origin of Language and Communication. Apologetics Press. Retrieved on June 21, 2015 from http://www.apologeticspress.org/image/rr/2002/r&r0208a.jpg
(2008, October). Aphasia. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Retrieved on June 21, 2015 from http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/pages/aphasia.aspx#causes
About FAS/Speech Samples. (2015). Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) Support. Retrieved on June 21, 2015 from http://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/about/
What is fMRI? (2015). Center for Functional MRI in the Department of Radiology. Retrieved on June 22, 2015 from UC San Diego School of Medicine http://fmri.ucsd.edu/Research/whatisfmri.html
Spencer, E. (2013, May 11). “Foreign Accent Syndrome-Ellen5e learning and teaching Ellens-FAS_Birthday_4.” [Youtube]. Retrieved on June 20, 2015 from https://youtu.be/tfKj82vYm_Y
Outrageous Acts of Science Season 3. (2015, February 25). “Outrageous Acts of Science Season 3 Episode 6 ‘Tested on Humans.’” [Youtube]. Retrieved on June 23, 2015 from https://youtu.be/SMVlUey6Mc0?t=23m