Aphasia: What Is It? Can It Be Treated?

Aphasia: What Is It? Can It Be Treated?

This complex neurological disorder can impact a person’s ability to understand or express language. Learn who’s at risk and what treatment options are available.

According to the National Institutes of Health, aphasia is a disorder that results from damage to areas of the brain that are responsible for language, affecting a person’s ability to speak, read and write. The most recent statistics from the National Aphasia Association indicate that approximately 2 million people in the United States have the disorder.

Helena Chang Chui, MD, chair and professor of neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, explains 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,” Chui says. “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,” Chui says. A second cause of aphasia is a progressive neurodegenerative disease, in which the disease gradually worsens.  Severe head trauma and conditions like brain infections and tumors, can also cause aphasia.

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

How is aphasia diagnosed?

Neurology specialists, like Chui, begin by asking the patient questions to assess understanding, memory and language comprehension. These verbal tests help identify what type of neurological disorder might be present. Imaging tests, such as an MRI, may follow 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, medication or treatment for this type of condition,” explains 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,” Chui says. “Understanding aphasia helps the patient and his or her 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.”

by Heidi Tyline King

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’re 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/.