All about Me…

We’ve got our wires crossed: The bizarre stories of people whose brains have rewired themselves…

Posted by vishalsinghal on August 14, 2008

Numerous system which link up and work together

The human brain: Numerous system which link up and work together

 

The human brain is the most complex organ in the body and contains 20 billion cells, responsible for everything from dreaming and movement to appetite and emotions.

It consists mainly of grey matter  –  the brain cells or neurons where information is processed.

It also contains white matter  –  the nerve fibres which, like electric cables, send out chemical messengers and relay information between the cells.

In fact, the brain contains more nerve fibres than there are wires in the entire international telephone network and sometimes the brain’s ‘wires’ can become crossed, as a result of injury, illness or genetics.

Scientists used to think a brain injury resulted in permanent damage to the brain’s functions, but new research suggests this is not necessarily the case.

‘When one area of our brain is damaged we now know from scans that the functions of that area are distributed elsewhere,’ says Dr Keith Muir, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Glasgow University.

‘That is why after a stroke people sometimes lose the use of their hand or leg then regain it because another area of the brain eventually takes up the job of movement.’

 

In fact, says Dr Muir, rather than talking about different areas of the brain it is better to think of it as having numerous different systems which link up and work together.

When the brain is injured, the systems learn to link up differently  –  sometimes with surprising results.

Some people are actually born with this kind of altered wiring. At birth we all have far more brain cells than we need and as we develop there’s a period of so-called ‘pruning’  –  when only the connections and brain cells needed and used survive.

In some cases it’s thought that this process goes awry  –  perhaps because of a faulty gene  –  resulting in cross wiring or extra connections.

Here, we talk to people whose brains have been ‘scrambled’ as a result of illness or birth.

But far from being a hindrance, some of them believe it is actually beneficial.

The brummie with a French accent
The brummie with a French accent

Richard Murray, 32, a financial planning manager, suffered a stroke three years ago and as a result now speaks in a French accent. Richard, from Hereford, is married to Amy, 32, and has two children: Olivia, two, and 17-month-old Finlay.

Richard says: ‘Until I had my stroke, I spoke with a broad Brummie accent. Now people assume I am a born-and-bred Frenchman, yet I have only ever been there twice briefly on holiday and speak only the basic French I learnt at school.

The stroke happened nine days after I got back from my honeymoon. Suddenly I had a searing pain in my brain and then I felt numb down my right side. I was fully conscious, but I couldn’t speak a word.

‘I was taken to hospital and within hours the feeling started to come back in my right leg and arm, but by the next morning I was still only able to grunt and I started to feel really panicky.

‘A brain scan showed that the stroke had been caused by a blood clot travelling through my system and lodging in the left side of the brain; this is the area which controls speech. They thought I got the clot after breaking my big toe while on honeymoon.

‘Although the clot had been dispersed with drugs, I was warned I might never be able to speak again, which was devastating.

‘I had all the vocabulary in my head, but I could not remember physically how to form words. Instead, I had to write everything down.

‘After eight days I was discharged from hospital, by which time I had full use of my arms and legs, but I was still mute.

‘I was told I needed to start speech therapy as soon as possible, but the wait on the NHS was nine months.

‘Luckily, a friend who is a speech therapist agreed to see me once a week and my wife worked with me daily.

‘I had to learn how to talk again from scratch. I knew how each word and letter was supposed to sound, but I did not know where to put my tongue or how to force out the words.

‘My wife would use a mirror so she could describe to me exactly how my mouth should look when I was making letter sounds.

‘Within two weeks I learned four basic words: ‘hi, bye, yes and no.’

‘Instantly my new accent was discernable. Initially I sounded Italian. My wife was just pleased I was talking again.

‘One day I was at the supermarket when the cashier asked me a question. I could only shrug and someone behind me muttered ‘bloody foreigner’.

‘Slowly I started to talk more. It felt different physically in my mouth to the way it did before the stroke and my accent turned from Italian to French. When I bumped into old friends and started speaking, they thought I was taking the mickey.

‘When I went back to work six months later, I visited each client face to face as they wouldn’t have believed it was me on the phone.

‘Now I can hold a steady, fluent conversation, but I still sound French. The doctors aren’t sure if my English accent will ever return. But I really don’t mind  –  having thought I would never speak again, I am grateful just to be able to talk.’

What is happening?
Foreign Language Syndrome is a very rare but recognised medical condition in which, due to a stroke or brain injury, a person starts speaking their mother language but with a foreign accent.

‘The power of speech uses many different areas of the brain,’ says Dr Keith Muir, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Glasgow University.

‘That’s why total speech loss is a common effect of a stroke, because it can cause catastrophic damage to very large areas of the brain.

‘It could be that people with this syndrome either regain their speech by using a different part of their brain, or that the effect of the stroke makes their mouth and tongue operate differently, which alters their pronunciation.’

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