Aphasia is condition characterized by either partial or total loss of the ability to communicate verbally or using written words. A person with aphasia may have difficulty speaking, reading, writing, recognizing the names of objects, or understanding what other people have said. Aphasia is caused by a brain injury, as may occur during a traumatic accident or when the brain is deprived of oxygen during a stroke. It may also be caused by a brain tumor, a disease such as Alzheimer's, or an infection, like encephalitis. Aphasia may be temporary or permanent. Aphasia does not include speech impediments caused by loss of muscle control.

(Fig 1.9.)
Broca's aphasia results from damage to the frontal lobe of the language-dominant area of the brain. Individuals with Broca's aphasia may become mute or may be able to use single-word statements or full sentences, although it may require great effort.

Wernicke's aphasia is caused by damage to the temporal lobe of the language-dominant area of the brain. People with this condition speak in long, uninterrupted sentences, but the words used are often unnecessary and unintelligible.


To understand and use language effectively, an individual draws upon word memory-stored information on what certain words mean, how to put them together, and how and when to use them properly. For a majority of people, these and other language functions are located in the left side (hemisphere) of the brain. Damage to this side of the brain is most commonly linked to the development of aphasia. Interestingly, however, left-handed people appear to have language areas in both the left and right hemispheres of the brain and, as a result, may develop aphasia from damage to either side of the brain.

Stroke is the most common cause of aphasia in the United States. Approximately 500,000 individuals suffer strokes each year, and 20% of these individuals develop some type of aphasia. Other causes of brain damage include head injuries, brain tumors, and infection. About half of the people who show signs of aphasia have what is called temporary or transient aphasia and recover completely within a few days. An estimated one million Americans suffer from some form of permanent aphasia. As yet, no connection between aphasia and age, gender, or race has been found.

Aphasia is sometimes confused with other conditions that affect speech, such as dysarthria and apraxia. These condition affect the muscles used in speaking rather than language function itself. Dysarthria is a speech disturbance caused by lack of control over the muscles used in speaking, perhaps due to nerve damage. Speech apraxia is a speech disturbance in which language comprehension and muscle control are retained, but the memory of how to use the muscles to form words is not.

Causes and symptoms

Aphasia can develop after an individual sustains a brain injury from a stroke, head trauma, tumor, or infection, such as herpes encephalitis. As a result of this injury, the pathways for language comprehension or production are disrupted or destroyed. For most people, this means damage to the left hemisphere of the brain. (In 95 to 99% of right-handed people, language centers are in the left hemisphere, and up to 70% of left-handed people also have left-hemisphere language dominance.) According to the traditional classification scheme, each form of aphasia is caused by damage to a different part of the left hemisphere of the brain. This damage affects one or more of the basic language functions: speech, naming (the ability to identify an object, color, or other item with an appropriate word or term), repetition (the ability to repeat words, phrases, and sentences), hearing comprehension (the ability to understand spoken language), reading (the ability to understand written words and their meaning), and writing (the ability to communicate and record events with text).


Following brain injury, an initial bedside assessment is made to determine whether language function has been affected. If the individual experiences difficulty communicating, attempts are made to determine whether this difficulty arises from impaired language comprehension or an impaired ability to speak. A typical examination involves listening to spontaneous speech and evaluating the individual's ability to recognize and name objects, comprehend what is heard, and repeat sample words and phrases. The individual may also be asked to read text aloud and explain what the passage means. In addition, writing ability is evaluated by having the individual copy text, transcribe dictated text, and write something without prompting.

A speech pathologist or neuropsychologist may be asked to conduct more extensive examinations using in-depth, standardized tests. Commonly used tests include the Boston Diagnostic Aphasia Examination, the Western Aphasia Battery, and possibly, the Porch Index of Speech Ability.

The results of these tests indicate the severity of the aphasia and may also provide information regarding the exact location of the brain damage. This more extensive testing is also designed to provide the information necessary to design an individualized speech therapy program. Further information about the location of the damage is gained through the use of imaging technology, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography scans (CT).


Initially, the underlying cause of aphasia must be treated or stabilized. To regain language function, therapy must begin as soon as possible following the injury. Although there are no medical or surgical procedures currently available to treat this condition, aphasia resulting from stroke or head injury may improve through the use of speech therapy. For most individuals, however, the primary emphasis is placed on making the most of retained language abilities and learning to use other means of communication to compensate for lost language abilities.

Speech therapy is tailored to meet individual needs, but activities and tools that are frequently used include the following:

  • Exercise and practice. Weakened muscles are exercised by repetitively speaking certain words or making facial expressions, such as smiling.
  • Picture cards. Pictures of everyday objects are used to improve word recall and increase vocabulary. The names of the objects may also be repetitively spoken aloud as part of an exercise and practice routine.
  • Picture boards. Pictures of everyday objects and activities are placed together, and the individual points to certain pictures to convey ideas and communicate with others.
  • Workbooks. Reading and writing exercises are used to sharpen word recall and regain reading and writing abilities. Hearing comprehension is also redeveloped using these exercises.
  • Computers. Computer software can be used to improve speech, reading, recall, and hearing comprehension by, for example, displaying pictures and having the individual find the right word.


The degree to which an individual can recover language abilities is highly dependent on how much brain damage occurred and the location and cause of the original brain injury. Other factors include the individual's age, general health, motivation and willingness to participate in speech therapy, and whether the individual is left or right handed. Language areas may be located in both the left and right hemispheres in left-handed individuals. Left-handed individuals are, therefore, more likely to develop aphasia following brain injury, but because they have two language centers, may recover more fully because language abilities can be recovered from either side of the brain. The intensity of therapy and the time between diagnosis and the start of therapy may also affect the eventual outcome.


Because there is no way of knowing when a stroke, traumatic head injury, or disease will occur, very little can be done to prevent aphasia. The extent of recovery, however, in some cases, can be affected by an individual's willingness to cooperate and participate in speech therapy directly following the injury.