4 May 2011

Language Thief

Posted by Kathryn under: Bilingualism and Your Health! .

In the May 3 Science section of the New York Times, Jane Brody describes a little-known and fortunately relatively rare disease which attacks the language center in the brain (“A Thief That Robs the Brain of Language”).  Described as a “clinical syndrome, one of several forms of brain disease lost in the medical shadow of their much better known relative Alzheimer’s disease,”  the syndrome is referred to as P.P.A., or primary progressive aphasia.  It does not affect memory, at least not initially, tends to occur at younger ages, often ca. late 50s, and is more common in men.  There is no cure, but there are ways to minimize the related disabilities, especially if  diagnosed early.  Its symptoms are a difficulty communicating despite no apparent problem with memory function, and early symptoms are subtle and often misdiagnosed. Errors in speech like those we all make when overly stressed or tired appear with increasing frequency, and cognitive difficulties may eventually be apparent.  The aphasia can affect “word-finding, object naming, syntax, phonology, morphology, spelling or word comprehension.” Progression is measured in terms of years rather than months. Early intervention, which is key, focuses on alternative approaches to communication (computer, images, electronics with ‘talking’ apps) and lifestyle changes such as emphasis on activities and hobbies which do not rely heavily on communication skills.

Since in an earlier post we referenced studies that indicate knowledge of a second language may in fact help stave off the effects of some forms of dementia for a while, we wonder if being bilingual is helpful with this language-specific syndrome.  Does it attack language function ability no matter where it resides in the brain, since it is believed that one’s native language is not resident in the same area of the brain where languages categorized by that brain as “foreign” are later housed?  We’ll try to find out if there are any data on this.

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