Aphasia: What Is It? Can It Be Treated?

This frustrating, complex neurological disorder robs people of their ability to understand or express language.

Though most people haven’t heard of aphasia, a brain disorder occurs in many different neurodegenerative diseases that results from damage to the left side of the brain, which controls communication. A million people in the United States are affected by aphasia, and 180,000 acquire the disorder annually.

Helena Chang Chui, MD, chair and professor of neurology, and director of the USC Memory and Aging Center at Keck Medicine of USC, explained that aphasia is a neurodegenerative condition that causes a part of the brain to slowly deteriorate and die.

“The area affected holds the key to our awareness, our experience, our decisions, and who we are,” she said. “That area of the brain is like our dictionary. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease where a patient experiences memory loss, a patient with aphasia loses memory for words.”

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What causes aphasia?

“The most common causes of aphasia are strokes in the left temporal lobe of the brain,” Dr. Chui said. Other sudden injuries or events like severe head trauma, brain infections, and tumors are also examples.

A second cause of aphasia is a progressive neurodegenerative disease, in which the disease gradually worsens.

“We have a special name for primary progressive aphasia: ‘semantic dementia,’” said Dr. Chui. “The person loses semantics and he or she becomes unable to understand words at all. Eventually he or he can’t speak and loses the idea of concepts.”

How is aphasia diagnosed?

Dr. Chui and other neurology specialists begin by asking the patient questions to determine understanding, and assess memory and language comprehension. These verbal tests help identify what type of neurological disorder might be present. Imaging tests such as an MRI follows so that the doctor can see what part of the brain is physically affected. A PET scan provides additional information.

Is aphasia treatable?

“There is no surgery, medications or treatment for this type of condition,” explained Dr. Chui. Instead, patients and families focus on managing the disease and maintaining quality of life. Speech therapy and learning new ways to communicate, such as through body language, can help. Skills that strengthen communication are also encouraged, such as giving the person plenty of time to talk and minimizing distractions.

Getting the right diagnosis is important, because it helps patients and families understand what they need to do to move forward and keep their quality of life.

“Everyone has their own idea of what is joyful or pleasurable,” Dr. Chui said. “Understanding aphasia helps the patient and his family refocus on realistic goals and gives them a sense of control and connection. As human beings, we want to be able to help each other and contribute. When we are able to do that, it enriches everyone’s lives.”

For more than 30 years, Keck Medicine of USC physicians and researchers have made major contributions to understanding Alzheimer’s disease, vascular brain injury and memory problems.

If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for exceptional care from some of the top neurologists and memory specialists in the world, be sure to schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting http://neuro.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.

By Heidi Tyline King