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"Brain injury" is a term that conjures up many different images. But what we don’t always appreciate is the various ways brain injuries manifest. The Washington Post ran a story this week on one of my clients whose brain injury has resulted in a very rare condition known as "foreign accent syndrome." Doctors at the University of Texas as Dallas describe FAS in the following way:

Foreign accent syndrome (FAS) is speech disorder that causes a sudden change to speech so that a native speaker is perceived to speak with a “foreign” accent. FAS is most often caused by damage to the brain caused by a stroke or traumatic brain injury. Other causes have also been reported including multiple sclerosis and conversion disorder and in some cases no clear cause has been identified.

For my client, Robin, FAS has altered her life:

"They say your life can change in an instant," she said in what sounds like a thick Russian accent. "Mine did."

As the Post reports,

The syndrome was first described by a neurologist in the closing days of World War II, when a Norwegian woman injured by a shrapnel hit to the head fell into a coma and woke up speaking — most unfortunately for her — with a German accent. (Fellow Norwegians ostracized her as a result, according to the medical literature.)

There are fewer than 60 reported cases of FAS worldwide. But the name "foreign accent syndrome" is probably a mis-nomer:

Scientists are quick to point out that these are not bona fide accents. (And none of the patients has spontaneously learned a foreign language.) Rather, in a way no one quite understands, the damage to the brain disrupts speech formation. Shelia Blumstein, a Brown University linguist who has written extensively on Foreign Accent Syndrome, said sufferers typically produce grammatically correct language, unlike many stroke or brain injury victims. But subtle changes in intonation and melody make syndrome sufferers sound foreign. No amount of therapy, she said, seems to reverse that.

You can see here how FAS has affected Robin:

I would be remiss if I didn’t note what a courageous and positive woman Robin is. She has started an organization to assist people with brain injuries get back to work and she has started taking graduate classes at George Washington University to learn about brain injury.

Foreign accent syndrome is just one reason that it is critical to not mess around with a head injury. Whether it be from a motorcycle accident, a car accident, a sporting injury, a fall or any other cause, it is imperative that head injuries be taken seriously. Parents should make their children wear bike helmets–in fact, parents should wear bike helmets also. Kids who suffer head injuries in sporting events should be treated, and withheld from sporting events for a sufficient time to assure that the head injury has fully healed.

As amazing as the brain is, it is equally fragile. Head and brain injuries must be taken seriously, for if they are not, a loved one’s life could change in an instant, just like Robin’s.

One Comment

  1. Gravatar for Graeme

    You know, you have a nice accent. This hasn't changed your personae I hope, it's not bad to be different and, as I'm sure you realise, as brain injuries go this isn't the worst. Anyway, I like your accent!

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