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An Alzheimer's-like disease that leaves people speechless

February 18, 2016
by Nicole Stempak, Associate Editor
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A loss for words is not the same as losing your words.

Not much is known about primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a rare neurological syndrome that makes it progressively more difficult for people to express their thoughts or find words. Unlike other forms of aphasia resulting from stroke or traumatic injury, PPA is a deterioration of brain tissues important for speech and language.

Most people with PPA eventually become mute and unable to understand spoken or written language. PPA does not affect memory, but often a person’s increasingly garbled attempts to communicate are mistaken for age-related dementia, says Argye Elizabeth Hillis, MD, to the Associated Press.  

But researchers are finding better ways to help diagnose PPA. Hillis is studying to see if electrically stimulating the affected brain region can slow the disease, she reported at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s general meeting. She says the first 19 study participants were better able to retrieve the right words for about two months compared to their regular therapy. Participants were more able to name objects they hadn’t practiced, and brain scans showed better connectivity in the affected region.

And technology is helping to improve the quality of life for those affected.

"I'm using a speech device to talk to you," says Robert Voogt, to meeting attendees using a Lingraphica MiniTalk. Voogt, 66, was diagnosed with the PPA 10 years ago. He started relying on the assistive communication device in 2012 but continues to live independently and travel internationally. "I have trouble speaking, but I can understand you."

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