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Understanding Damage to Wernicke’s Area: Symptoms and Treatment

Close-up portrait of bearded guy wearing pink tshirt in front of isolated over violet purple lilac background biting lip looking nervous because he has damage to Wernicke's area

Damage to Wernicke’s area of the brain can cause a unique type of language disorder known as fluent aphasia. With this disorder, a person can speak phrases that sound fluent (have a lot of words) but lack meaning.

In today’s article, we’ll discuss the function of Wernicke’s area plus the effects damage to it can cause. You’ll also learn different ways to manage communication difficulties.

What is Wernicke’s Area?

Wernicke’s area was discovered by a neurologist named Carl Wernicke who investigated the effects of brain damage on different aphasia patients. Some patients, he noticed, were able to speak but could not comprehend language. They also used several nonsense words and phrases, without seeming to realize it.

When examining the brains of these patients, Wernicke discovered that they all had lesions in the left hemisphere of their brains. Specifically, the lesions were found near the back of the left temporal lobe.

This region is now known as Wernicke’s area and is thought to control a person’s understanding of spoken and written words.

Symptoms of Damage to Wernicke’s Area

Two pawns on light blue background. The speech bubble above one pawn is full of scribbled lines to represent the garbled speech of someone with damage to Wernicke's area

Damage to Wernicke’s area can result in receptive or fluent aphasia, also known as Wernicke’s aphasia.

Unlike more common types of aphasia, Wernicke’s aphasia does not affect a person’s ability to produce words. Rather, they have lost their ability to grasp the meaning of words.

Some other symptoms of Wernicke’s aphasia include:

  • Producing sentences that do not make sense.
  • Speaking in a way that sounds normal but lacks meaning, as if they are speaking another language.
  • Difficulty understanding others
  • Inability to repeat words or phrases
  • Difficulties with reading and writing

Here’s a video of a patient with Wernicke’s aphasia, where you can see what fluent aphasia sounds like:

In addition, many patients with Wernicke’s aphasia do not realize they have any problems with speech. As a result, they might express confusion or frustration when you don’t understand them.

Recognizing Wernicke’s Aphasia

Damage to Wernicke’s area is not associated with other cognitive or physical disabilities. Because it’s location is farther back in the brain, the motor cortex is usually intact.

For example, patients with Wernicke’s aphasia typically do not struggle with left neglect, and they can still walk and perform many activities of daily living on their own.

As a result, the person can appear to not have any disabilities, and is not easily recognized as a brain injury or stroke survivor. Therefore, when they speak, others often assume they have a mental health problem. They are also often mislabeled as intoxicated.

That’s why it is important for family members to familiarize themselves with this type of aphasia. If you recognize the symptoms, you can seek treatment.

Stages of Recovery from Wernicke’s Aphasia

daughter comforting father who has wernicke's aphasia

Wernicke’s aphasia sometimes recedes on its own. However, it can be hard to evaluate the person’s progress if you do not understand the hierarchy of recovery.

This describes the typical progression of Wernicke’s aphasia from its most severe form to mild impairment. The following stages illustrate what recovery often looks like:

  • Stage 1: Very confused, with minimal understanding of written or spoken words. Speech is often garbled and nonsensical.
  • Stage 2: Confusion decreases, but speech is still garbled. They may begin to get frustrated when others cannot understand them.
  • Stage 3: They can now understand words in highly-contextual settings. For example, if you point to a salt shaker and ask if they want some, they might understand you.
  • Stage 4: Their speech now has normal rhythm and intonation, but the words they use are still nonsense. Their understanding has also improved a little.
  • Stage 5: Patient now realizes that what they think they say is not always what they actually say. They also will start to use more real words at this point.
  • Stage 6: The patient can now echo spoken words and read single words.
  • Stage 7: Speech begins to make sense and the person uses real words appropriately. They might still struggle to find specific words, however.

Everyone progresses at their own rate and may not follow these stages precisely. Still, these stages can help you understand what to expect.

Managing Wernicke’s Aphasia

Wernicke’s aphasia requires a different therapy approach than traditional aphasia. You should work closely with a speech therapist to create a recovery program that fits your loved one’s needs.

In the meantime, the following are a few tactics you can use to make communication a bit easier:

  • Use gestures
  • Draw pictures
  • Write down important words
  • Talk about things that are contextually relevant, such as “do you want a drink?”
  • Slow your speech to give them time to process
  • Be close enough that they can hear you

When using these tactics, be careful not to use a tone or phrasing that you would use with a child. While the person may not understand your words right now, they can usually still detect condescension in your voice and facial expressions. Therefore, continue to speak to them as an adult.

Understanding Damage to Wernicke’s Area

Damage to Wernicke’s area can cause a person to lose their ability to understand language. They also will struggle to produce meaningful words and phrases.

This is often frustrating for the person, as they usually do not understand why others are confused by their words. Fortunately, this type of aphasia usually fades as their brain heals.

As the person is healing, a speech therapist can suggest tactics to increase the person’s communication skills.  

We hope this article helps you better understand the effects of damage to Wernicke’s area and how to manage them.

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