Aphasia is a communication disorder caused by brain damage or pathology of the language area of the brain (usually the left side). It can result in partial or complete impairment of language including the comprehension portion (understanding what is said) and/or the expression portion.
Disorders of language comprehension are described as an impaired ability to comprehend spoken words. This is called receptive aphasia or Wernicke’s aphasia and is characterized by varying degrees of impaired comprehension. This type of aphasia is characterized as “fluent” meaning the person with aphasia may say strings of words together but there is little meaning to the message.
Disorders of language expression are described as an impaired ability to retrieve the word or words needed to express spoken language. This is also called expressive or Broca’s aphasia and can also manifest in a range of severity levels. This type of aphasia may be referred to as “nonfluent” meaning the person with aphasia has difficulty “finding” the word to say to verbalize a message.
Reading and writing are also typically affected with aphasia and correlate with the type of language the patient may have. For example, the person who has receptive aphasia has difficulty encoding information so reading tends to be affected. On the flipside, those who have expressive aphasia have difficulties with the output of language so they typically have difficulty with writing. Therefore giving a person with aphasia a pen and paper when they are having trouble communicating will not be helpful as aphasia affects verbal and written language at the same time.
A person who has aphasia may exhibit expressive and receptive deficits making it difficult to understand and express language. This is typically called global aphasia and is a nonfluent type of aphasia.
Aphasia alone does not result in cognitive or memory deficits. Pure aphasia is a language impairment only. A person can have aphasia as a result of a stroke that also affected other areas of the brain resulting in coinciding cognitive impairments. When language is severely impaired, it can be difficult to tease out cognitive impairments but this can be thoroughly assessed by a speech language pathologist.
For more information on aphasia, you can visit the national aphasia association at www.aphasia.org