Brain Oddities: Foreign Accent Syndrome

Brain oddities

Something about speaking a foreign language or having a mysterious accent always gives you cool points. I can’t speak for women in other countries, but I think I can speak for a majority of American women, a man (or woman) with a nice South African or Italian accent is immediately more attractive.

FAS blog image

Madonna (Credit: David Shankbone)

So, when I read about Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), I thought to myself, This doesn’t sound so bad, I could use some cool points. As it turns out, the chances of me or anyone I know developing this condition is slim to none. Foreign Accent Syndrome is a very rare condition affecting fewer than 100 people in the world. Potentially due to a number of different causes including stroke, migraine, allergic reaction, and anesthesia, FAS causes patients to adopt what sounds like a foreign accent. In most of the cases, the individual has never lived anywhere near the origin of the new found accent.

One of the recent notable cases is a woman from Newport, Oregon, who woke up from oral surgery speaking an Irish-sounding accent. At first, her oral surgeon was convinced that it was from post-surgery swelling. After several days, her accent did not disappear and she was diagnosed soon after with FAS. When asked if she would participate in the common speech therapy prescribed for these patients, she said no, she enjoyed her new accent. This was atypical; most people who suffer from FAS experience depression and anxiety.

As it turns out, scientists hypothesize that the condition isn’t technically a spontaneous foreign accent, but instead, a non-specific distortion of native language caused by damage to the motor-speech pathways in the brain. To the listener, the change in emphasis on certain vowels, consonants, and syllables may closely mimic a known foreign accent that has similar patterns. Specifically the left side of the prefrontal cortex, the motor cortex and the cerebellum are implicated in this disease. These findings give scientists further insight into what pathways control speech patterns.

Come to think of it, Madonna began speaking with a British accent after living in the UK for only one year. Could she be number 100?

–Elizabeth Weaver, Neuroscience Education Specialist at Georgia State University

Sources:

1. Neural bases of the foreign accent syndrome: A functional magnetic resonance imaging case study.
W. Katz, D. Garst, R. Briggs, S. Cheshkov, W. Ringe, K. Gopinath, A. Goyal & G. Allen
The Neural Basis of Cognition. Vol. 18, (3), 2012

2. The mysterious foreign accent.
Panchajanya Paul, MD, Barry Beckman, PsyD, David Bellian, MD, and Thomas Osinowo, MD
Current Psychiatry. Vol. 10 (3) p. 57-62.

3. "Woman Gets Oral Surgery, Wakes Up With Irish Accent". Huffingtonpost.com. 2011-06-05. Retrieved 2011-06-16.

4. Foreign accent syndrome as a developmental motor speech disorder.
Peter Mariëna, Jo Verhoevenc, Peggy Wackeniera, Sebastiaan Engelborghsa, Peter P. De Deyna
Cortex Volume 45, Issue 7, July–August 2009, Pages 870–878.

5. A role for the cerebellum in motor speech planning: evidence from foreign accent syndrome. Mariën P., Verhoeven J., Engelborghs, S., Rooker, S., Pickut, B. A., De Deyn, P.P. (2006).
Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery, 108, 518-522.

2 responses

  1. I have post concussion syndrome and now speak with what many tell me sounds like a Russian accent. I have been to the Doctors and they have never treated FAS and some have never heard of it. How do I get help?

  2. Hi Joy,
    I am not a doctor, so I can’t give you any medical advice, but I can point you in the direction of support groups and peer reviewed literature on the subject.
    The support groups for rare conditions can be extremely helpful emotionally. The peer-reviewed articles site people and researchers who are investigating this condition. You may be able to Google them and find contact info for them.
    Support Group: http://www.utdallas.edu/research/FAS/
    Peer Review Article from NIH: see reference #1 above.
    Liz

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