A stroke, the medical term for when blood and nutrients are cut off from the brain, can have a devastating effect on a person’s ability to communicate. Words that once came naturally for even simple objects before the stroke—such as a chair, a pen, or an apple—are suddenly difficult if not impossible to retrieve. Although some people may recover their language skills in time, for others, the effects can be chronically debilitating.

Such differences in patient outcomes have scientists from the University of South Carolina delving deeper into this language disorder—called aphasia—which results when language centers of the brain are damaged by stroke, head injury, or other causes. In new NIDCD-funded research, they’ve demonstrated not only how important the location of the brain damage is in predicting how well a person will respond to aphasia therapy, they are also investigating a new method for stimulating brain-damaged regions in people with aphasia, in hopes of increasing brain plasticity and perhaps improving word recall.

In research published in the September 15, 2010, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, Julius Fridriksson, Ph.D., studied 26 patients who experienced chronic aphasia after suffering a stroke that damaged the brain’s left hemisphere, where the language centers are found. He wanted to observe whether treating patients for anomia, an impairment associated with aphasia in which a person has difficulty naming certain objects, can help increase neural activity in key regions of the brain. (Although there are several types of aphasia and each has a variety of symptoms, anomia is a symptom that all people with aphasia have in common.) He also wanted to learn if damage to certain regions of the brain had a particularly negative effect on the successfulness of a patient’s treatment.

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