Speech-Disrupting Disease Linked to Patients’ Native Language

Shirley Amy
January 21, 2020

New research findings published in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, Neurology, which were announced by the UC San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, shows that: “English and Italian speakers with dementia-related language impairment experience distinct kinds of speech and reading difficulties based on features of their native languages.” So let’s take a look at  how they made this very interesting discovery.


Some Languages Are Easier For the Brain

UC, which worked on this project alongside the Italian San Raffaele Scientific Institute’s Neuroimaging Research and Neurology Units, noted that in the past, neurologists had believed that brain diseases which affect individuals’ language abilities, would essentially be on a par with other patients with the same disease, regardless of which part of the world they lived in. However, this assumption is now being questioned due to recent discoveries. This includes the findings which indicate that: “Italian speakers with dyslexia tend to have less severe reading impairment than English or French speakers, due to Italian’s simpler and more phonetic spelling.”

Avoiding Misdiagnosis

A well- known professor of psychiatry and neurology at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, Maria Luisa Gorno-Tempini, MD, Ph.D, who served as one of the study’s authors, noted: “Clinical criteria for diagnosing disorders that affect behavior and language are still mainly based on studies of English speakers and Western cultures, which could lead to misdiagnosis if people who speak different languages or come from another cultural background express symptoms differently.” She also made a very valid point: “It is critical going forward that studies take language and cultural differences into account when studying brain disorders that affect higher cognitive functions — which we know are greatly impacted by culture, environment, and experience.”

Study Details

The research put the spotlight on individuals suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder known as PPA (primary progressive aphasia). This condition, which is frequently linked with frontotemporal lobar degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease, and other states of dementia, impacts the brain’s language areas. Elisa Canu, Ph.D, the study’s lead author, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute’s Neuroimaging Research Unit, stated:

“We wanted to study patients with PPA to understand whether people from different language backgrounds actually experienced the disease differently, and what that might mean for how we try to help patients remain resilient to the disease.”

Different Languages, Different Results

MRI brain scans and cognitive tests were conducted on both English and Italian-speaking subjects.

These two groups showed comparable degrees of brain degeneration, as well as

similar cognitive functioning. However, the scientists witnessed a key difference, when they compared the group’s performance on a collection of linguistic tests. These indicated that: “English speakers had more trouble pronouncing words — the traditional hallmark of non-fluent PPA — and tended to speak less than usual. In contrast, Italian speakers with the same disorder had fewer pronunciation difficulties but tended to produce much shorter and grammatically simpler sentences.”

In summary, although this research is just in its infant stage, it is nonetheless, a very important breakthrough, and the more research  that can be done to help tackle the massive surge in brain diseases, the better.

Shirley Amy

Shirley Amy is a Holistic Health Specialist and professional writer who's published 4 books. Her  interests include optimum wellness, mental health, fitness, and positive lifestyle change. She holds University and College qualifications in the fields of Health Science, Nutrition, Mental Health, Fitness, Holistic Therapy and Aromatherapy.

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