A conference for those who can’t find the words

As a precursor to the National Aphasia Association’s June 2004 conference “Speaking Out,” USF researchers in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders will be speaking out to increase public understanding and awareness of aphasia.

Aphasia is a disease that causes a variety of difficulties in the production and comprehension of speech as well as reading and writing. The most common cause of the disease is strokes, but traumatic brain injuries and various types of brain tumors can also cause it.

The conference gives those who suffer from aphasia, as well as their family and friends, a chance to communicate and learn about new research and treatment options for aphasia. The first conference was held in 1998, and one is held every two years.

“This conference is special because it’s for people who have survived aphasia or who have survived a stroke with aphasia, their family members and professionals,” said Gail Pashek, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

USF and the NAA will be advertising information on aphasia mostly in print media such as newspapers and magazines in order to create awareness about the disease as well as the conference. This year will also be the first time that information will be circulated in the Spanish speaking community. In addition, the National Aphasia Association also plans to have special sessions at the conference that will be held in Spanish for those individuals who speak Spanish as a primary language, said Jaqueline Hinckley, the associate chair in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

“We feel it is important and reflects part of the diversity that we have in the Tampa Bay region,” Hinckley said.

Although not many people know about aphasia, it is a common problem and currently afflicts about one million Americans.

“It is one of those diseases that few people learn about until someone they know experiences it, although it is more common then a disorder like Parkinson’s disease, which everyone knows about,” Pashek said.

When a stroke or other traumatic injury occurs, a person usually sustains damage to the language-processing areas of the brain, which cause problems with communication. In some cases the disease can be mild, but there are also severe instances in which a person who is afflicted with aphasia can only produce a few spoken words and recognize little or no language. This particular type of aphasia is called global aphasia.

Three other types of aphasia that can occur are Broca’s aphasia, mixed non-fluent aphasia and anomic aphasia. In Broca’s aphasia, speech output is severely reduced to short utterances and sound formation comes with great effort. In mixed non-fluent aphasia, a person may have sparse and difficult speech with great limits in word comprehension, and in anomic aphasia, people develop an inability to supply words for what they want to say.

Out of the four types of aphasia, the most common types that develop are Broca’s aphasia and anomic aphasia, Pashek said.

For those people who speak two or more languages, aphasia can present an interesting situation. Bilingual speakers with aphasia may have equal difficulties in both languages, but sometimes one language improves or recovers differently. This occurs because learning pathways for the first and second languages are different, although the language producing and comprehension areas of the brain are the same for all languages, Hinckley said.

“It is very interesting and also helps us to start better understanding the organization of languages in the brain, especially in the case of people who speak more than one language,” Hinckley said.

Tampa Bay is also a fitting place to hold the NAA’s 4th biannual conference because the area is home to a higher-than-national average of adults over the age of 65, Pashek said.

The national average of the total population of people over the age of 65 is 12 percent, while the average in Florida is 17.6 percent and the average in Pinellas, Sarasota, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties combined is 23.5 percent.

“There is a higher concentration in this particular area in the West Coast (of Florida),” Pashek said.

Currently, there are no drug treatments available for aphasia, but the USF Aphasia Clinic offers direct therapy for those people suffering from aphasia. The clinic offers individual therapy as well as group therapy. The group sessions, in addition to offering therapy, also offer social support for those people facing similar challenges, Hinckley said.

Another service offered by the clinic is a book club. In the book club, adults who have difficulty reading due to aphasia can choose a book and receive specialized treatment that allows them to begin reading again.

Currently, the USF Aphasia Clinic is involved in ongoing research to develop additional treatments to help people who have aphasia. If you or someone you know suffers from aphasia and is interested in getting involved in aphasia treatment research or in getting more information about the disease, contact Cheryl Paul at (813) 974-8176 or visit www.aphasia.org.