Aphasia is a disorder that makes it difficult for a patient to read, write and speak. It occurs when the part of the brain that controls language is damaged, frequently as a result of a stroke or head injury. Other causes include brain tumors, infections and degenerative diseases.
Damage to the left side of the brain causes aphasia in most right-handed people, and about half of those who are left-handed. When the right side of the brain is damaged, additional problems may occur.
A variety of symptoms are associated with aphasia, depending on the extent of brain damage as well as the area affected. The patient may speak in short or incomplete sentences, use words or sentences that don’t make sense, have trouble understanding what other people are saying, write sentences that don’t make sense, and interpret figurative language literally.
Three main types of aphasia:
- Expressive or nonfluent aphasia: the patient knows what they want to say but have trouble saying it, struggling to get words out or speaking in short, incomplete sentences. The patient may comprehend what others are saying to some degree. They are often aware of their own communication difficulties and become frustrated.
Receptive or fluent aphasia: the patient hears their voice or sees the print, but can’t decipher the meaning of the words. They may speak fluently, but their sentences may be rambling and nonsensical. The patient usually can’t comprehend spoken language, and may not realize that other people can’t understand what they’re saying.
Global aphasia: the patient can’t speak, comprehend speech, read or write.
Following a CT scan or MRI, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) will evaluate the patient to determine the type and severity through a series of tests measuring their ability to communicate. The SLP will assess their speech, comprehension, expression, social communication, reading and writing. They may be asked to name common objects, repeat words and sentences, follow instructions, tell a story or explain a joke, read and write words and sentences and engage in conversation.
The mildest forms might not require treatment, as language skills often return on their own. Most individuals will need speech and language therapy to rehabilitate their communication skills. The process is long, and few people are able to fully regain their pre-injury abilities.
Currently, tests are underway for medications. While some drugs look promising, additional research is needed before they become commonplace.